Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Prepping for Le coq d'or

I am going to prepare for the performance of El Gallo de Oro (Spanish), Le coq d'or (French), The Golden Cockerel (English) or Zolotoy petushok (Russian) by doing some reading up. Musicologist Richard Taruskin makes the point that the reputation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korskov has suffered in the West from a number of causes. He is known for three examples of "orientalist kitsch": Capriccho espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture and Scheherezade. But most of what he wrote, his fifteen operas are, apart from the Golden Cockerel, barely known. The Flight of the Bumblebee, arranged for virtually every instrument there is, is a very brief excerpt from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Taruskin only escaped this conventional wisdom due to his descent from Russian jews. As a youth, he was sent recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov operas unavailable in the West

Another source of disparagement came from one of Rimsky-Korsakov's own pupils, Igor Stravinsky, who, in the process of creating his own set of origin myths, decided that it was a good strategy to depict his ex-teacher as a shallow academic. In an essay in a recent collection, Russian Music at Home and Abroad, Taruskin fleshes out the picture for us in a paper titled "Catching Up with Rimsky-Korsakov."

Speaking of Stravinsky, the theorist Arthur Berger, back in 1963, discovered some interesting things about some of his compositions, i.e. that they make use of something Berger labeled the "octatonic scale" which is a scale consisting of alternating whole and half tones:

Click to enlarge
This came out of his studies of pieces such as Les Noces, but it explains things like the famous Petrushka-chord which is a C major chord and an F# major chord superimposed. As you can see from the scale, all six of those notes are contained in it!

As I was saying, the official discovery of this scale is attributed to Arthur Berger, who analyzed it in a scholarly paper and named it. But the scale existed before any of that. As a good music historian, Taruskin uncovers the historical origins of the scale, which was mentioned (though not by name) in Olivier Messiaen's book on his musical language. But it was also widely known in Russia as the gamma tonpoluton, the "tone-semitone scale" but also as the korsakovskaya gamma, the "Rimsky-Korsakov scale." Rimsky-Korsakov himself mentions in his autobiography that he had run across the scale in a symphonic poem by Franz Liszt. Rimsky-Korsakov's sketchbooks as well as his finished compositions are full of examples of the scale and illuminate its properties. There are even examples of the Petrushka-chord in pieces like Heaven and Earth and Tsar Saltan.

Taruskin initially thought that his music theorist colleagues would be delighted that his historical research had turned up so many preceding usages of techniques that Stravinsky later developed. He says, "there is nothing in Stravinsky up to the time of Petrushka, insofar as technique is concerned, that is not also in Rimsky-Korsakov." Well, that was a short-lived hope! The theorists quickly circled the wagons and defended the originality of Stravinsky. Why? Stravinsky is one of the defining figures of not only 20th century music, but modernism generally. The whole idea of modernism is that it was a brilliant and NEW development. No-one wants to hear anything about any historic forebears, except someone like Debussy, who is credited with the origins of modernism in music. But he is safely French! There is also, Taruskin avers, a bias against Russia and its culture.

But enough of that particular debate, let's have a look at the Golden Cockerel. This was Rimsky-Korsakov's last opera and was only premiered after his death. The libretto is based on a poem by Pushkin which itself is based on two chapters from Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving. The final result is something like a traditional Russian folktale, told from an absurdist angle. It appears from the Wikipedia article that this upcoming performance is a co-production with Brussels and the Opera National de Lorraine.

This is a 1989 Bolshoi production:


Marc Puckett said...

There's a new DVD of Le Coq d'Or reviewed at the Guardian, if you are interested. One can't know of course whether the 'diminished' Gergiev &c is down to his political incorrectness or is a reliable indicator of the quality of the performance without hearing the performance-- but it is Andrew Clements.

Bryan Townsend said...

I saw that, in fact, it is going to be one item in tomorrow's miscellanea.