Saturday, January 17, 2009

So who was the world's greatest tunesmith? Owing to a sudden, er, schedule availability, my answer will come in tomorrow's classical music post


Raina Kabaivanska (at age 56) and Luciano Pavarotti (age 55, in a role I don't think he ever sang all that effectively) sing most of the Act I duet from Puccini's Tosca, with Daniel Oren conducting. On the plus side, the clip has subtitles. (It begins at Tosca's "Al tuo fianco sentire.") The phrase "Qual occhio al mondo . . ." comes at 4:29.

by Ken

Owing to technical difficulties (mine, and trust me, you don't want to get me started on that -- after staying up an entire night trying to do a couple of pathetically simple "clips," consisting of nothing more than an image tacked onto an MP3 audio file -- I'm prepared to swear that this whole Internet thing is a cruel hoax, and this YouTube thing a ridiculous scam that'll never catch on), this week's music program has been pushed back to next week.

We were going to have a name-the-composer quiz in anticipation of tomorrow's Sunday classical music post. I'm going to allow that damned Internet and YouTube a week to get their act together. For now, though, I want to pursue an issue that comes up in the course of the now-delayed discussion: What the heck makes a great melody a great melody?

Oh no, I'm not going to try to answer that question. I'm not that crazy. I'm simply going to register astonishment at how ill-equipped I am to even consider it, and I'm not sure there's anybody much better equipped. I don't see any fancier alternative to the reality that we recognize great tunes after the fact, by the power they have to take control of the consciousness, and burrow into the unconscious, of large numbers of listeners.

By way of an obvious example of how hopeless it seems to me to try to define or analyze this, I return to that great moment I wrote about last week in the Act I "love duet" of Tosca, a duet that barely manages to be one as Tosca and Cavaradossi, preoccupied with their own problems, mostly talk past one another. Finally comes that remarkable moment when Cavaradossi, responding to Tosca's jealous fixation on the eyes he has painted in his portrait of the Madonna, for which he has used the beautiful Marchese d'Attavanti as a model.

Suddenly Floria has Mario's full attention, and Puccini has given him one of the great opportunities in the tenor literature. "Qual occhio al mondo puo star di paro all'ardente occhio tuo nero?" "What eyes in the world can stand comparison with your ardent black eyes?" (For the record, Mario refers in both instances to "eye," singular, but it seems to me that in English that just sounds silly, especially when we're confronted with the image of Tosca's "black eye.") This is the kind of take-charge moment for which good singers pay their career dues, and great singers announce themselves. If our tenor can take charge of it, can pour forth the wash of honeyed tenor magic for which the composer set him up, this can be as arrestingly beautiful moment as has ever been conjured by the mind of man.

(Not entirely surprisingly, if I could hear only one singer here, it would be Jussi Bjoerling -- in the RCA Tosca with Zinka Milanov and Leonard Warren, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf -- even though his was a lighter grade of tenor than the role calls for. No tenor has matched, not just his vocal refulgence, but his seemingly intuitive sense of how to shape a Puccinian phrase for maximum buildup and release. No, I'm not thrilled with the above clip, but I decided it was the best I could do. A significantly younger Kabaivanska, a fine artist of whom I have some lovely memories, can be heard from Japan with tenor Flaviano Labo in 1973. And I've heard worse performances than the Standard Hour one, apparently from 1953, by the improbably cast Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce, who actually did sing these roles a little.)

But as I pointed out last week, from the analytical standpoint, the "melody" Puccini has given the tenor is mostly just a series of upward-and-downward scale passages. This is supposed to be melodic genius? Uh, well, 'fraid so.

Obviously there's no rational answer to as preposterous a question as "Who was the greatest melody-writer of all time?" But it can be a fun question to speculate on. And the field is wide open -- anyone who wants to throw in the name of Irving Berlin can make an awfully good case, based on both quality and the astonishing volume.

It's not hard to think of candidates for the title. What I find kind of surprising is that, at least in my mind, there's not much question about the answer. And obvious as the answer seems to me, I can't offer any kind of rational defense of it. Tomorrow I will content myself with a couple of examples.

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