Wonderland: The Royal Ballet’s First Full Length, All-New Work This Century

The most exciting event in the world of ballet last year was undoubtedly Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Royal Ballet’s first original and full length narrative ballet – with a newly commissioned score – since 1991’s Cyrano de Bergerac. In tenuous financial times, a lot was riding on this risky venture; had it flopped, the company could have seen its bountiful investment disappear down a deep, dark rabbit hole. Fortunately though, the production was a spectacular triumph, and is soon to be revived later this year.

Joby Talbot

The show’s success and widespread critical praise was richly deserved. First thing to mention is Joby Talbot’s excellent score (co-orchestrated with Christopher Hustin) which somehow manages to feel both retrospective and contemporary at the same time. The influence of film music is apparent, providing the piece with a dramatic richness, as well as making the ballet incredibly accessible for mainstream modern audiences. Dreamy, mysterious harmonies are infused with magical percussion effects, enchanting harp figurations, ethereal woodwind textures and a string part that switches back and forth between oscillating motions and suspended chords. These elements combine to create an intoxicating musical landscape that is both wistful and occasionally unsettling in an almost Bernard Herrmann like manner. Take for example the persistent clockwork motif that runs throughout the ballet (denoting of course the novel’s running conceit of the White Rabbit and his quest not to be late) which could almost have been plucked right out of one of Herrmann’s film scores.

Within this context, Talbot’s score is able to visit a range of different idioms whilst never seeming inconsistent. There are moments of great dissonance and violence, sounding reminiscent of early modernism and the dynamic ballets of Stravinsky, such as The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. These uglier moments are often reserved for appearances by the character of the Queen of Hearts, who is frequently accompanied by harsh brass outbursts and bombastic use of the timpani. However, the most Stravinsky-like moment of all occurs with the dance of the playing cards, which boasts a stomping rhythmic flair and wild orchestration.

A sweeter impressionist style proves the perfect companion for love scenes between Alice (Lauren Cuthbertson) and the Jack of Hearts (Sergei Polunin.) This music blossoms throughout the ballet until finally having its most poignant moment of realisation in a long-delayed dance between the two, shortly before the story’s resolution. A mix of static impressionist harmonies and increasingly chromatic romanticism, fluctuating motifs and affecting use of impassioned strings, solo violin, harp and glockenspiel create a necessary expansive sense of space, sentiment and wonder at this culmination of the love story.

This wide variety of musical styles is complemented by an equally eclectic range of choreography from Christopher Wheeldon. A plethora of dance types are combined in a coherent and dramatically convincing fashion. Prevalent throughout is a contemporary twist on classical ballet, with traditional moves and techniques delivered with a more dynamic and less formalised use of frame. Take for example the colourful waltz of the flowers, where Alice has once become ‘shrunk’ from eating what is hinted at being a hallucinogen. This leads into a classically inspired dance which treads the fine line between homage and parody, replete with an eccentric neoclassical waltz in Talbot’s score.

Parody takes over completely with the introduction of Zenaida Yanowsky as the Queen of Hearts, who dances in a ludicrously exaggerated classical style that is awkward and inelegant, much to the amusement of the audience. She is accompanied by a more extreme form of cod neoclassicism from the orchestra, which obeys every cliché in the book. There are many moments of playful humour like this one throughout the ballet, and they greatly enrich the entertainment value of an already riveting show.

This demonstrates how Wheeldon so evocatively employs different types of dance to denote the many vivid creations from Lewis Carroll’s novel. The caterpillar, for example, is given an exotic and lithe belly dance infused number, perfectly complemented by Middle Eastern influenced harmonies and colourful woodwind melodies.

The Mad Hatter and March Hare, on the other hand, are given comical and frenetic tap dancing to delineate their maniacal characterisations. They are wonderfully portrayed by Steven McRae and Ricardo Cervera, both of whom manage the difficult combination of a wild vitality with spot on timing. They also achieve a great sense of chemistry in combination with James McRae as the terminally exhausted and bewildered dormouse. The score explodes into a carnival-like fever, brimming with lively use of percussion and exciting rhythms, vividly evoking Carroll’s chaotic tea party scene.

The performances are as excellent as this all-round. Lauren Cuthbertson is superb as Alice, bringing just the right combination of wide-eyed innocence and daring sense of adventure to the role. She dances beautifully throughout, and shows an adept comic timing and instinct for mime. Sergei Pulonin is typically self-assured in the role of the Jack, Alice’s lover, and if there’s one slight quibble to be had, it’s just a shame he hasn’t got more to do. However, he and Cuthbertson are sublime together, cleverly mirroring each other’s choreography with a furtiveness and grace that suitably reflects their flowering love. Mention should also be made of the delightful Zenaida Yanowsky – who is both comical and menacing in the role of the Queen of Hearts – and of Edward Watson, whose White Rabbit performance is appropriately twitchy and restless.

On top of the excellent score, choreography and performances, the ballet boasts magnificent production design throughout. Sumptuous sets, lavish projections and expertly realised colourful costumes abound in every scene, in addition to an array of imaginative special effects. The ballet opens with a richly detailed garden scene, populated with period costumes and props. This is followed by Alice’s initial descent into Wonderland, where a projected spiral cascades along the back of the stage, down which we see Alice plummet alongside assorted letters, words and images.

This is just one of many enchanting moments that demonstrate the time, effort and rampant creativity that went into this eclectic production, all of which helped make it such a triumph for the Royal Ballet. Let’s hope it’s not too long before we are treated to another brand new full length work from the company, as Alice Adventures in Wonderland was a real joy to behold.


Mozart and the Freemasons: A Study of ‘The Magic Flute’

Mozart Visits the Vienna Freemasons Lodge (1790)

The opera that most potently epitomises the ‘age of enlightenment’ is Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Some have disputed the influence of Mozart’s experience with Freemasonry on the work, but given the amount of symbolism and Masonic ideology evident throughout the libretto, this becomes a difficult case to argue.

The ideals of intellect, reason and humanitarianism dominate the opera’s themes, and Mozart (a committed Freemason) beautifully realises these elements musically in one of his finest scores. Operatic scholar Thomas Bauman states, “The novel musical and visual layer of hieratic solemnity in Mozart’s opera, whose roots in the world of Freemasonry cannot be doubted, redefined the operatic notion of ‘serious’ in a way to which German Romantic Opera readily indebted itself.”[1]

Music historian Paul Nettl states that freemasonry is believed to have evolved from the “stone-masons’ guilds of the Middle Ages.”[2] Furthermore, music writer Edward Joseph Dent claims that these guilds “formed a sort of trade union for their own protection; they further protected themselves by secret signs and…maintained the secrets of their professional methods.”[3] In the Seventeenth Century, these groups were transformed as a result of allowing in “gentlemen of wealth and social position,”[4] many of whom would contribute to the growth of what would come to be known as Masonic ideology. This eventually paved the way for four London lodges forming the Grand Lodge of London in 1717, which is seen as the birth of the Freemasons due to its coinciding with the firm codification of their belief system.[5] From these origins, Freemasonry would spread around the world.

The ideology of the Freemasons hasn’t remained entirely consistent over the centuries, but there are certain central concepts that have unswervingly featured. Nettl states that it has always been based around “experiencing true love for all mankind, a positive attitude towards man and life, and broad affirmation of God…the realisation that beyond the dark and material world there is a realm of light towards which all men must strive.”[6] Also vital to Freemasonry’s ideology is the belief in archaic symbolism, signs and ritual “borrowed principally from the Mason’s trade and from architecture,”[7] as well as from “prehistoric customs and ancient Near Eastern mythology.”[8]

Freemasonry’s stated aim was to “build the Temple of Humanity, symbolised by King Solomon’s temple.”[9] This ideology springs from the ritual, vocabulary and legends taken from the old masonic guilds,[10] such as the story of “Hiram, Solomon’s architect, who is killed…because he refuses to divulge the secret.”[11] Also important are the “charitable, humanitarian and international ideas”[12] developed in the Eighteenth Century, the ‘age of reason.’ To attempt to codify these diverse strands of ideology, Masonic historian Sir Alfred Farthing Robbins described Freemasonry “as an organised system of morality, derived from divine wisdom and age-long experience, which for preservation from outer assault and inner decay, is veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbol.”[13] Accordingly, Freemasons “turned for enlightenment to the ancient mysteries, and sought by uniting men of kindred tendencies, to reconstruct society on a purely human basis.”[14]

Mozart first joined the Freemasons around 1784/1785, although even before this date, he had numerous friends and associations in lodges of the Freemasons and similar movements, such as the Illuminati.[15] His membership would bring him many rewards, including financial assistance from wealthier Freemasons like Viennese merchant Michael Puchberg.[16] He also saw social benefits from associating with the many influential public figures who were Freemasons.[17] However, there were more meaningful reasons that Mozart appreciated Freemasonry. Dent states, “It is clear from his letters and from his compositions that his connection with it exercised a very deep and lasting influence,”[18] and Donald Jay Grout agrees about “the deep impression its teachings had made.”[19] Nettl puts this down to the varied hardships Mozart experienced throughout his life – “the reflection and self-contemplation which followed his extensive wandering…that brought about the creation of his unique style.”[20] He embraced Masonic ideologies, such as the importance of having a positive approach to death,[21] and also publicly stated his desire to “pay homage to Masonry in a better way.”[22] He had already composed some Masonic compositions, such as the Masonic Funeral Music, which are “full of the Masonic spirit…understanding the most fundamental ideas of Freemasonry, which are symbols.”[23]

However, The Magic Flute is his definitive Masonic composition, as is asserted music critic Robert Gutman. “Mozart wished this compound of popular theatre and a symbolic representation of Freemasonry to remind the Viennese of its contribution to the city’s ethical life,”[24] countering the attack Freemasonry was under in Vienna at the time from the newly crowned monarch Leopold II.[25] From the artwork on the libretto’s original title page, we get an immediate idea of the agenda that Mozart and the librettist – his fellow Freemason, Schikaneder – were pursuing, due to the numerous Masonic symbols depicted. The entrance of a Temple is shown; in addition, “a five pointed star, symbol of the second degree, is suspended, and on the lower right are those of the first degree, square and trowel, and an hour-glass representing the third.”[26]


Schikaneder used a variety of Masonic sources for the libretto, in particular, the Abbe Terrasson novel Sethos, “which was a great influence in French Freemasonry…and continued to play a role in Freemasonry to the end of the 19th Century.”[28] This text focuses on Freemasonry’s relationship with the ideology of ancient Egyptian religions. Parallels between this book and The Magic Flute include Terrasson’s power seizing Queen Dalucca – highly reminiscent of the opera’s Queen of the Night – and the high Priest, a character similar to Sarastro.[29] The relevance of the eighteen priests at the start of the second act becomes apparent when you learn that “Eighteen priests kept watch over Hiram’s grave and the number of priestesses who performed sacrifices in Sethos is also eighteen.”[30] The conflicting desires of love and initiative are also present in the novel[31], and musicologist Rodney Milnes points out a string of other similarities. “From Sethos comes the text recited by the Armed Men, the Three Ladies, the serpent, the trials of fire and water, and the ritual of the second Act,”[32] not to mention Sarastro’s opening air from Act II, which is “taken practically word for word.”[33]

The extensive use of this source and others like it helped steep the libretto in Masonic ideology. As Dent explains, “The moral sentiments…were drawn largely from Masonic teaching… (such as) the importance assigned to manliness and friendship, to the secrecy of the mystic rites.”[34] The main theme of the opera is the “journey from darkness to light,”[35] as experienced by the character of Tamino – ultimately, the opera “celebrates the possibility of progress.”[36] This is clearly an endorsement of the ideology of Freemasonry. The Queen of Night represents the darkness – her world is steeped in irrationality and superstition, described by music historian David Cairns as “the domain of ignorance and unregenerate women.”[37] This is why the priest Sarastro is viewed as an enchanter – “the change he works in men…is a mere question of magic, and the flute likewise is a purely magical piece of property.”[38] Alternatively, Sarastro and his “noble brotherhood”[39] represent the masons and “the light of understanding,”[40] where the human soul “and all its former contradictions, and all it parts, having shed their negative aspects, are united into a single harmonious whole.”[41] Like the Freemasons, the brotherhood has a Sprecher, or an orator. Their temples are called Nature, Reason and Wisdom, the three ‘Lesser Lights’ of Freemasonry, [42] and many people believe that the character of Sarastro is actually based on Ignaz Edler von Born, a “famous freemason and scholar.”[43]

Sarastro's Court

Furthermore, Rodney Milnes argues that the Queen of Night and her conflict with Sarastro over “control of the Circle of the Sun symbolises the conflict on Masonic lore between the dualism proposed by inscriptions on the twin pillars of Hiram’s Temple of Solomon.”[44] These feature such opposing forces as “Masculine/Feminine, Sun/Moon, Day/Night, Fire/Water.”[45] Freemasons believe in the path of understanding and light. As the Genii – “beyond the dualism and thus perfect beings”[46] – sing,

‘Soon superstition will vanish and wisdom triumph; come, Peace, and fill the hearts of men, so that earth will become a paradise and mortal men as the Gods themselves.’ This is the principle hope of both the opera and Freemasonry in general.

Like all Freemasons, Tamino must undergo trials in order to join the brotherhood – “the tests by fire and water, which are found in Sethos as well as the masonic initiation.”[47] He must gain enlightenment through hardship, just as Mozart had had to – through “suffering, self-sacrifice and love.”[48] As in the Freemasons’ initiation, Tamino is offered the chance to turn back, and is warned to remain secret and silent.[49] He also has to learn the masonic ideal of rejecting fear of death – “that fear of death which masonry had taught Mozart to overcome.”[50] As Sarastro says, in the event of Tamino’s death, “Then he will go to join Isis and Osiris and share their happiness before we do.”[51] The libretto also features recurring use of the number three, a highly significant figure to the Freemasons. “There are three ladies, three genii, and finally the eighteen (six times three) priests.”[52]

Mozart hints at these various ideological elements throughout his score, including the symbolism of the number three. The opera begins in E flat – which has three flats in its key signature – and opens with three detached chords.

These reoccur throughout the overture and the opera, sometimes in dotted rhythms, representing “a stylised version of the Entered Apprentice’s knocking.”[53]

Furthermore, the March of the Priests features a threefold sequence of eight note phrases. Similarly, the Fugato theme of the Overture, with its pounding rhythms, is said to be a depiction of “working on the rough stone.”[54]

The number five in masonry represents women, and “five note figures are prominent in the work in the scenes that take place…in the feminine domain.”[55]

Masonic ideology is also demonstrated by the music via the well-reasoned simplicity of Mozart’s score, in terms of “form, style, material…yet it is a positive simplicity, subtle and purposeful, uncomplicated in its effect.”[56] This is intended to evoke the calm rationality of the Freemasons. Symptomatic of this are the passages of block harmony he employs for “the expression of moral sentiments…to impress clearly onto the audience.”[57] These effects are complemented with solemn instrumentation, such as in the finale of Act 1, where Tamino is guided to the Temple accompanied by “a solemn march, with soft pulsations of bassoons, trombones, muted trumpets and drums, and the gleam of flutes and clarinets in octaves.”[58]

The final chorus is also an example of this “with drums and trumpets prominent, singing of virtue and justice.”[59] In addition to this, Mozart produces “humanitarian melodies (which possess)…a wonderful mildness and purity, silently glowing with metaphysical warmth.”[60] An example of this is Sarastro’s aria, ‘Oh hear us, Isis and Osiris,’ featuring as it does “wide bass intervals”[61] and “new sonority basset-horns, trombones, violas in two parts and cellos…to undermine the solemnity.”[62]

Mozart also imbues the Masons with an appropriate air of mystery, such as we feel during the March of the Priests as a consequence of its interrupted cadences and mystical sounding ascending parallel sixths.

These appear again in the introduction to Sarastro’s subsequent aria. This features a further enchanting effect whereby the chorus repeats the final phrase each half aria, distributed varyingly between the parts, evoking a fitting sense of ritual.

This sense of mystery is amplified by imaginative orchestral effects.  Take the Finale of Act 1, where Tamino questions the orator, and “the basses are parallel to the voices, while the strings pulsate softly…(When) the voices answer from within, ‘Soon, soon, or never” we feel something of the mystical power which Freemasonry held over Mozart.”[63]

This portrayal is all the more powerful when contrasted with the completely opposite portrayal of the Queen of Night, and her furiously passionate Italianate arias. These are brimming with wild coloratura and rapid phrases that dart back and forth, displaying her lack of reasoned understanding and calm logic.

Also of significance are the trials, which Mozart paints beautifully in order to emphasise the lengths the Masons go to for their beliefs. Particularly effective is the depiction of the trial by fire, with its “beating rhythms, the imitative treatment, the sobbing of the violins and the chromaticism.”[64]

Given the story, the numerous symbols and Masonic references, and the musical treatments Mozart employs, it is hard to dispute that Freemasonry played a huge influence over the creation of The Magic Flute. However, it is important not to view the work simply as a masonic treatise. Much more than that, Freemasonry is used as a foundation stone from which the truly great elements of the opera spring – the philosophical doctrine of reason, the sublime music that evokes this, the richly developed libretto and finely realised characters, and Mozart’s extraordinary instinct for such potent musical drama.

[1] T. Bauman, “The Eighteenth Century: Comic Opera” in Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, ed, Roger Parker (Oxford, 1994) p121

[2] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry (Philosophical Library, New York, 1957) p5

[3] E. J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study (Oxford University Press, 1947, 2nd edition) p229

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, p230

[6] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p4

[7] E. J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study, p230

[8] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p4

[9] Ibid, p5

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] A. F. Robbins, English Speaking Masonry (London, 1930) p234

[14] Catholic Encyclopaedia, quoted by E. J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study, p230

[15] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p9-12

[16] Ibid, p19

[17] Ibid, p13

[18] E. J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study, p232

[19] D. J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (Oxford University Press, 1947) p293

[20] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p105

[21] Ibid, p23

[22] Ibid, p21

[23] Ibid, p58

[24] R. W. Gutman, Mozart: A Cultural Biography (Seker & Warburg, London, 2000) p724

[25] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p83-84

[26] Ibid, p82-83

[27] Anonymous, “The Magic Flute” – Bro. Alberti and the Frontispiece of the Libretto on the Occasion of the First Performance in the Year 1791: A Supplementary Interpretation to the Symbolism in 39 Reflections. http://www.internetloge.de/zaujpg/zaudia58.htm

[28] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p72

[29] Ibid, p73

[30] Ibid, p74

[31] Ibid, p78

[32] R. Milnes, “Singspiel and Symbolism” in The Magic Flute, ed. N. John (John Calder, London, 1980, 2nd edition) p14

[33] E. J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study, p227

[34] Ibid, p223

[35] R. Milnes, “Singspiel and Symbolism” in The Magic Flute, p16

[36] Ibid

[37] D. Cairns, “A Vision of Reconciliation” in The Magic Flute, ed. N. John (John Calder, London, 1980, 2nd edition) p19

[38] Ibid, p24

[39] R. W. Gutman, Mozart: A Cultural Biography,p724

[40] D. Cairns, “A Vision of Reconciliation” in The Magic Flute, p23

[41] Ibid

[42] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p89

[43] Ibid, p84

[44] R. Milnes, “Singspiel and Symbolism” in The Magic Flute, p15

[45] Ibid

[46] Ibid

[47] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p90

[48] D. Cairns, “A Vision of Reconciliation” in The Magic Flute, p24

[49] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p90

[50] E. J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study, p253

[51] Mozart, Die Zauberflotescore (Barenreiter, London, 1960)

[52] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p88

[53] Ibid, p91

[54] Ibid

[55] D. Cairns, “A Vision of Reconciliation” in The Magic Flute, p19

[56] Ibid, p17

[57] E. J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study, p245

[58] D. Cairns, “A Vision of Reconciliation” in The Magic Flute, p26

[59] Ibid, p28

[60] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p91

[61] Ibid, p92

[62] D. Cairns, “A Vision of Reconciliation” in The Magic Flute, p29

[63] P. Nettl, Mozart and Masonry, p92

[64] Ibid

“The Whole of Nature” – The Challenges Mahler Presented to Orchestras

In order to understand Mahler’s approach to orchestration, it is necessary to establish the context of the era in which he was composing. At this point, music had evolved to extreme proportions. Pieces were longer, more ambitious, more programmatic, and called on greater resources than ever before. The end of the romantic era saw composers increasingly looking for new and varied ways to further develop their art and match the enormous artistic achievements of past composers, notably Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.  Harmony had developed beyond its traditional role and functions, and it would not be long before it was abandoned altogether. Composers were also more experimental in the sorts of works they were writing; programme music was common, the genre of symphonic or tone poems had developed, and traditional symphonies themselves were subject to tremendous expansion and experimentation.

In keeping with this experimentation was the approach to orchestration during this period. Composers were seeking new and exciting ways of orchestrating their music, in order to fully satisfy their loftier artistic inclinations and ambitions, and to fit the exotic new harmonies that were now being explored. No composer more than Mahler sought to develop the art of orchestration, and in doing so he would present a whole variety of challenges to orchestras of the time. Players would frequently have to learn new concepts and techniques in order to successfully perform his works. It has been said of Mahler as a composer that he “came to conceive that a symphony might give voice to ‘the whole of nature,’” (P. Franklin, 1996, xii) and so it is perhaps not surprising that he would then seek to explore the orchestra to its utmost expressive potential.

The most obvious way in which Mahler presented a challenge to his orchestras was the sheer size of orchestra he frequently insisted upon. From his earliest symphonies onwards, he expanded the amount of instruments  he used to proportions that no previous composers had written for.

A 2001 Performance of Das Klagende Lied

In one of his earliest works, Das Klagende Leid, he begins his development of the use of the orchestra. “Even in the original version the handling of the orchestra- an exuberantly large one for the time- shows unusual flair and imagination for a young composer.” (D. Mitchell, 1980, p511) This would further develop throughout each of the symphonies. As Donald Grout and C.V Palisca put it, “Mahler’s symphonies are typical post- romantic works: long, formally complex, programmatic in nature and demanding enormous performance resources. Thus, the second symphony, first performed in 1895, requires, along with a huge string section, 4 flutes (two interchangeable with piccolos) 4 oboes, 5 clarinets, 3 bassoons and a contrabassoon, 6 horns and 6 trumpets (plus 4 more of each, with percussion in a separate group) 4 trombones, tuba, kettledrums and numerous other percussion instruments, 3 bells, 4 or more harps and organ, in addition to soprano and alto soloists and a chorus.” (D. J. Grout and C. V. Palisca, 1988, p758)

Needless to say, this is a vast orchestra, much larger than most of the instrumentalists would have been used to playing in, and the amount of rehearsal that would have been required in order to successfully combine all these forces into a cohesive, expressively effective unit would have been much greater than was common at the time. However, Mahler felt such forces were necessary in order to achieve the grand programmatic scheme of this 5 movement masterpiece, an emotional journey that moves from contemplating death to celebrating life. This use of such vast orchestration would culminate in the renowned eighth symphony, the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ so-called because of the vast forces it requires, in order to achieve Mahler’s positive affirmation of the glory of the human spirit. As Henry-Louis de-la Grange put it, “”To give expression to his cosmic vision, it was … necessary to go beyond all previously-known limits and dimensions.” (H.D.L Grange, 2000, p890)

One aspect of all of these works in addition to the large instrumental forces being deployed is the inclusion of vocal soloists and choruses in the orchestra. Mahler was always a composer to take inspiration from his background, and his history composing Lied would have a deep impact on his symphonies. Often he would choose texts that further added to the programmatic depth of what he was trying to achieve. As Grout and Palisca put it, “Mahler the symphonist cannot be separated from Mahler the song composer.” (D. J. Grout and C. V. Palisca, 1988, p760) He was one of the first composers since Beethoven and his ninth symphony to use voices within a symphonic context. He was best known as an operatic conductor, and so inevitably would have had more experience at marrying vocal and instrumental forces.  Indeed, it has been argued by Donald Mitchell that “Mahler was influenced by the large scale thinking in Wagnerian music drama.”(D. Mitchell, 1980, p514) His first four symphonies would all include vocal forces, most notably in the second, where, “like Beethoven, Mahler brings in voices for the final climax of the work…The third movement is a symphonic adaptation of one of the Wunderhorn songs, and the brief fourth movement is a new setting for contralto solo of still another poem from that collection. This serves to introduce the finale…a monumental setting for soloists and chorus beginning with the text of a Resurrection ode.” (D. J. Grout and C. V. Palisca, 1988, p758) In this symphony, you clearly see the influence of his past, and also of the music of Beethoven and Wagner; most notably, the aim to produce such a monumental and ambitious work, by making use of such extensive forces and achieving a balance between orchestra and voice.

Mahler didn’t just expand the orchestra as a whole. He also paid particular attention to increasing the role of specific portions of the orchestra. Notably, he avoided over-relying on thick string textures as had become a cliché of some romantic music, most notably in the symphonies of Schumann, where the string writing has often been criticised as having far too prominent a role. This has also been claimed to a lesser extent of Brahms, who it could be argued was never quite as imaginative in terms of his writing for brass and woodwind as he was for strings. Mahler sought to redress this balance, finding wind and brass textures incredibly useful for the sort of sounds he wanted to create. This was often in order to create dark and brooding timbres, as are frequently found in the second symphony, particularly in the “vulgar, rowdy brass band Resurrection march.” (D. Mitchell, 1980, p516) Mahler also frequently invoked music of a military nature, such as in the third symphony. “Mahler makes good use of the very large orchestra the third symphony demands. Above all of the big battalions of wind: quadruple woodwind (but 5 clarinets, two of which are E flat clarinets, commonly found in military bands) 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones and tuba. With these resources to hand he is able to bring to his busy motivic textures the maximum of clarifying instrumental colour.” (D. Mitchell, 1995, p327)

This would have undoubtedly been a challenge for orchestras of the time, most obviously players in the brass and woodwind sections who suddenly had a lot more to do than they had been given in the music of other composers. Now, not only were they not in a secondary role to the strings, they were actually often more prominent.  “Again and again in the fourth symphony we find pages of scoring where the wind predominate; and indeed the general impression left by the symphony is one of a sound world to which the wind make the major contribution…in this work he has effected a radical shift away from the classical concept of the predominantly string-based orchestra.” (D. Mitchell, 1995, p325) Many would argue that Mahler was the first composer to have done this since Beethoven, whose first symphony was famously criticised for having too predominant wind textures.

A particularly wind dominated section from Mahler's 4th Symphony

Mahler was also not afraid of being highly experimental with his choice of instrumental combinations and effects. “Mahler’s orchestration continued the innovations introduced by Berlioz. His flair for finding unusual and effective combinations of instruments is always distinctive.” (Anonymous, The Symphony: An Interactive Guide – Late Romanticism, http://library.thinkquest.org/ 22673/mahler.html) Many of these more experimental moments were designed to achieve the sort of unusual expressive effects required by the programmatic content of his music. For example, he would frequently employ off-stage ensembles, an effect he utilised as early as in Das klagende Lied where he sets “the catastrophe of the final scene of this work against an offstage wind band which pursues its festive music despite the calamitous dramatic context…the association of high tragedy and the mundane (the wind timbre of the offstage band), the latter simultaneously (offers) an ironic commentary on the former.” (D. Mitchell, 1980, p511)

This unusual effect would reoccur in other of Mahler’s works, and was undoubtedly a difficult exploit to achieve due to the obvious problems presented by having performers offstage trying to play in time with performers onstage. It is also indicative of the very specific programmatic evocations Mahler was so talented in arousing. He was a master at using instruments in unusual ways to imply narrative elements, such as in the Scherzo of the fourth symphony, where “the scordatura solo violin – all strings tuned one full tone higher than normal…is intended to suggest the sound of the medieval Fiedel (fiddle) in a musical representation of the Dance of Death, a favourite subject in old German paintings.”  (D. J. Grout and C. V. Palisca, 1988, p758)

Another challenge for orchestras aside from achieving these effects was to find good players on rare orchestral instruments such as the mandolin. A notable example of this is in the seventh symphony, where “The second Nachtmusic…is Mahler’s equivalent of a Schumann character piece, a kind of extended Albumblatt for a large and idiosyncratic orchestra (mandolin and guitar are prominent.” (D. Mitchell, 1980, p511)

In creating such vivid pieces, an enormous amount of instruction is given in the score, so each effect is achieved to its most optimum potential, including “extremely detailed indications of phrasing, tempo, and dynamics.” (D. J. Grout and C. V. Palisca, 1988, p758) Interestingly, he was often able to recreate the effect of having an offstage ensemble through scoring alone, such as in the Ninth Symphony, and its use of a chamber orchestra. “Extremely subtle dynamic markings and through orchestration…allow mobility between differently constituted bodies of sound, as with the chamber orchestra which suddenly emerges in the Ninth Symphony’s first movement without leaving the main arena of musical action.” (D. Mitchell, 1980, p517)

In his later works Mahler would present yet another challenge to orchestras in his employment of increasingly contrapuntal textures, a style of writing that was not common during this period.

Mahler Symphony 5, 3rd Movement - Counterpoint

He was frequently drawn to baroque composers as sources of inspiration, most notably Bach, and this use of counterpoint would prove challenging given the sheer amount of players involved in playing simultaneous, contrasting lines, not to mention the length of the works also. “This new aspect of Mahler’s technique appears with special force in the finale of the sixth, which sustains page after page of counterpoint, almost Palestrinian in its breadth.” (D. Mitchell, 1980, p523)

All in all, Mahler’s music was renowned at the time and still is today for the complexity of its orchestration. The sheer scale, the use of voice, the development of the orchestra, the experimentation, the level of detail, and the complicated textures all combined to produce music that was as demanding for orchestras to play as it was rewarding for audiences to hear. The breadth of orchestral writing employed was vital in achieving the ambitious artistic aims of his works; most notably, the detailed and profound programmes he wished to evoke.


Anonymous, The Symphony: An Interactive Guide – Late Romanticism, http://library.thinkquest.org/ 22673/mahler.html

H. D. L. Grange, Gustav Mahler Volume 3: Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1904–1907), (Oxford University Press, 2000)

D. J. Grout and C. V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, (J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd, London, 1988)

P. Franklin, Mahler: Symphony No. 3, (Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1996)

D. Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: Volume 2 – The Wunderhorn Years, (University of California Press, 1995)

D. Mitchell, The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians: Mahler, (Oxford Univeristy Press, 1980)

San Francisco Ballet’s The Little Mermaid

In 2005, the Royal Danish Ballet commissioned Lera Auerbach to compose a new ballet based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. The story was first published in 1837, and intriguingly, was originally written as a ballet; although a few operas and a tone poem have been produced over the years, Auerbach’s new version was the first occasion that the tale had been told in the medium for which it was imagined.

Well known choreographer John Neumeier was given the task of bringing the piece to the stage, and his work has received widespread critical acclaim – so much so, that last year, the San Francisco Ballet staged their own production of the piece. This too would prove to be a major triumph, and it has now been recorded and released on DVD – or alternatively, you can watch it online at http://video.pbs.org/video/2177584773/

It’s not difficult to see why the production has been such a huge success. Beautifully conceived staging and design are perfectly complemented by a haunting score and rich, evocative choreography. Yuan Yuan Tan has all the necessary innocence, joy and youthful passion to carry off the title role of the Mermaid – effortlessly portraying the extreme emotional range that the lead character experiences, whilst also dancing Neumeier’s imaginative compositions to perfection.

She is excellently complemented by Lloyd Riggins as the tortured poet, said to be a representation of Hans Christian Andersen. A brief prologue sees the poet witness the man he loves marrying someone else, leading him to envisage the story of the mermaid as a symbolic illustration of his own doomed love affair. Riggins brings an air of genuine longing and resignation to the role, that both contrasts with and echoes the Mermaid’s own character progression. Andersen was said to have suffered from many unrequited loves during his life, and so, including him as a character in his own story adds a pertinent layer of depth to the ballet.

The design of the show is simply sublime. The staging is minimalist for the most part, with evocative lighting effects and vibrant juxtapositions of colour used to great effect. Particularly well realised are the underwater scenes – the surface of the water represented by seductively fluctuating white lines. These intertwine with the flowing costumes and liquid-like choreography to take the audience on a delightful voyage into the Mermaid’s world.

Mention must also be made of the wonderful music from Lera Auerbach. She has produced a score that successfully combines stirring melodies and impressionist harmonies with moments of striking dissonance. Pedal notes, minimalist style repetition and static harmonies create a hypnotic and dream like soundscape in many of the love scenes. This is juxtaposed with the everyday world of the sailors and the schoolgirls, who are given far livelier music, often containing very rhythmic and jazzy inflexions. Clever instrumental effects are exploited throughout for their expressive potential, including edgy string glissandi, shimmering percussion textures and a distant wailing soprano.

Neumeier’s choreography combines perfectly with this score. Modern dance, mime and emotive drama are all united into a remarkably coherent whole, filled with variety and imagination, whilst also beautifully conveying the famous narrative. All in all, this is a wondrous addition to the ballet repertory that will be entertaining audiences for years to come.

The Effect of Ellington

Duke Ellington is considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz composers. His vast creative output as a big band leader saw him take jazz to new levels of sophistication, whilst still managing to retain those key elements that define the music as true jazz. As well as having an endless resourceful musical imagination, he was also greatly skilled at harbouring the individual talents of his band members, designing his compositions towards their specific niche, the widely admired ‘Ellington effect.’ This often made the band’s own recordings the definitive performances of his compositions.

Ellington demonstrated his creative talent from very early on in his career, producing a series of 78 r.p.m recordings which required him to compose great pieces of music within the confines of three minutes. One of his first masterpieces was 1930’s Mood Indigo, which immediately displayed his skill for writing both catchy and innovative music. As a result, it quickly became a standard. By the 1940’s his style had developed to a point which many consider to be his peak for turning out these concise three minute gems, such as 1941’s Koko. However, in these later years, he was also seeking to produce longer more intricate works, such as the symphony (or tone poem) Brown, Black and Beige. He would prove less successful in these extended ventures though, and so later discovered a compromise in the form of suites. These allowed him to compose a series of shorter movements, often linked to one another. Many of these suites were new versions of existing classical works, such as his re-imagining of the Nutcracker Suite, featuring the movement Sugar Rum Cherry.

Like most jazz musicians, Ellington employed very simple structures, often either 32 bar song form, or the 12 bar blues. Mood Indigo, however, has a 16 bar form divided into four bar phrases (A-A1-B-A.) This is stated four times. Firstly there is a statement of the main melody, followed by a clarinet solo, then a trumpet solo, and a four bar piano break before a final recapitulation. This simple structure is not only appropriately concise for the limited three minute recording space, but also displays Ellington’s influence from the blues and New Orleans. Whilst other band leaders of the time, such as Paul Whiteman, produced more complex arrangements or ragtime style multiple sections, Ellington stuck to traditionally authentic blues structures that allowed space for solo improvisations within pre-composed outlines. As Ken Rattenbury states, “Ellington integrated pure improvisation…by means of harmonic progressions which he organised as the bases for extemporisation.  Frequently these were conventional blues structures of eight or twelve bars.”[1] Through this, Ellington retained the straightforward emotional directness that gives the blues its power and evocative sense of humanity. He himself would state that “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work,”[2] with many people viewing the blues as the purist expression of African American cultural identity.

Koko makes use of a twelve bar blues structure, although by this point Ellington’s style had significantly developed and the simple form is less obvious, due to the greater variety of textures being used. Despite this, the piece retains its jazz integrity. The track begins with an eight bar introduction, and this leads into seven choruses. These each feature a different combination of soloist and section in dialogue with one another, such as in the opening chorus, where a trombone solo alternates with the reeds. The piece then ends with a varied version of the introduction. Koko demonstrates not only Ellington’s affinity with the blues, but also the skill he had developed at this stage of his career of disguising simple blues structures through intricate composition.

Sugar Rum Cherry features a slightly more complex structure due to it being an adaption of Tchaikovsky’s original Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. However, the result is still relatively simple and nicely accommodates a bluesy saxophone solo. Once again, Ellington mostly sticks to four and eight bar phrases, dividing the main original material into three 8 bar sections, producing loosely the following structure: A-A1-B-B-C-C1-A. The piece also kicks off with a four bar percussion solo, which appears again after the opening A section, and after the C1 section. The reappearance of the opening A theme at the end of the piece is only a partial recapitulation, with the opening bar and a half of the melody repeated time and time again as the piece gradually fades away. The original Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is transformed by this more straightforward structure; it  allows for a more direct blues approach, with the B and C sections providing the harmonic outline for a superb tenor saxophone improvised solo that provides a delightful element of hot jazz.

One of the most crucial times of Ellington’s early career was in the late 1920’s when his band had a residency at the Cotton Club, during which period Ellington had to master composing pieces to accompany the club’s stage shows, as well as providing general dance music. As Lewis Porter describes, “At the Cotton Club, (Ellington’s band) played their own swing numbers, played the music of Jimmy McHugh, and did many of the accompaniments. Ellington was forced to learn to write show tunes of various types, and to push the latest dances.”[3] This versatility saw Ellington become adept at three main different styles; the famous ‘jungle style’, abstract instrumental works he often called concertos, and blues influenced mood pieces. Although Ellington worked in a harmonic idiom influenced by European impressionism, he didn’t seek to evoke specific scenes and images, but rather certain moods and emotions, more akin to the impressionism of Delius than Debussy. Burnett James has written that “Ellington’s tone poems are not so much observations of natural objects or human activities as subjective reactions to those objects and activities.”[4] Mood Indigo perfectly demonstrates this. It is one of the bluesy mood pieces he composed for the Cotton Club in 1930, and brilliantly establishes a laidback atmosphere with its slow pace, wistful melody, impressionistic harmony and melancholic sonorities. Koko on the other hand is in his jungle style, a primitive mood established via rasping timbres, tribal percussion rhythms and dissonant harmonies. Ellington’s Sugar Rum Cherry also evokes the jungle style, completely transforming the dainty original via tribal dance rhythms on percussion, stark textures, and dark sonorities. Ellington was the first jazz composer to really explore these varied expressive possibilities in his music, and Porter asserts that “Ellington virtually invented the instrumental jazz ballad, or what Gunther Schuller has called ‘mood pieces’.”[5]

One of the key ways Ellington achieved these different moods was his unique approach to arranging. He favoured innovative and dramatically evocative textures. “A lot of men organised the sections of a jazz orchestra in the way that is common to most big bands…and voiced them, by and large together…Duke didn’t do it that way. He put his colours up through the sections, matching and mixing colours in all sorts of odd ways.”[6] Mood Indigo for example featured unique orchestration for its time, with the melody stated by a wind trio led by a soft muted trumpet in its undemanding middle register, followed by a muted trombone playing at the top of its register, unusually placed above the clarinet, which is on the bottom playing in its lowest register. This creates a highly distinctive sound that is rich, warm and wistful, perfectly matching Ellington’s harmonies. Rattenbury states, “The high register, pent-up trombone sound contributed the essential ingredients of passion and warmth.”[7] This is perfectly matched by the fine trumpet sound and deep rich clarinet. “They sounded like one instrument.”[8]

In other respects, the work is more typical. The block scoring and parallel voicing of the theme is very common in big band music, particularly Ellington’s, where his voicing was influenced by his piano playing. This again is a link to his heritage, in that it is the approach of a self-trained jazz musician, and emits the rustic folk charm and individualism of the blues. As Gunther Schuller asserted, “Such voicings were unorthodox and wrong according to the textbooks. Ellington did not care about the textbooks.”[9] Also, this sort of voicing worked well at heightening the impact of blues notes, as described by Rattenbury. “Ellington was well aware of the enlivening blues dissonances created when the blues scale is superimposed over a basic triadic accompaniment.”[10]

The rest of the piece also uses traditional textures, featuring soloists against a simple rhythm section accompaniment that mostly just states chords every beat. Ellington does create a little variation though, with a double bass countermelody and a brief unaccompanied moment in the clarinet solo, highlighting a moment of climax where the clarinet climbs up to a held high note. However, for the most part the piece retains a very simple, static texture suitable for its dreamy ambience.

Koko on the other hand is a more complex arrangement. This is more appropriate for its restless, jungle style, but again Ellington displays his touch for innovative textures as well as his blues roots. As in Mood Indigo, Ellington avoids sticking to predictable combinations of colours, and instead varies each passing chorus with different instrumental combinations, generally getting thicker as the piece goes on, causing growing dissonance and complexity. For example, the first chorus features a solo trombone and the saxophone choir on top of the rhythm section. Chorus two sees a brass punctuated figure join this texture, and by chorus five all the sections feature, playing off one another. The piece eventually climaxes with a very dramatic and loud full orchestra seventh chorus, with all the sections colliding to great effect.

Unlike Mood Indigo, Koko is constructed as a series of antiphonal exchanges between these different combinations of instruments, another link to the blues, where pieces are often constructed as call and response between a vocalist and his accompanying instrument. These antiphonal exchanges are largely built from riffs that reoccur throughout the work, and there are also a series of pedal notes used in most of the choruses. For example, the introduction features an antiphonal exchange between a recurring baritone saxophone low E flat pedal note that introduces the main rhythmic riff of the piece, and a syncopated descending figure for the three trombone choir. Ellington is often credited for first promoting the three trombone choir, a “less obvious (of) innovations…which he began to use in the thirties.”[11] As in Mood Indigo, simple block parallel voicing is used throughout.

Ellington’s use of the rhythm section has also developed to a more prominent role, rather than merely providing a harmonic and rhythmic foundation. A walking bass is employed that provides a greater sense of momentum in a piece that thrives on its restless energy. The bass also has an important solo role in the sixth chorus, being given a series of breaks in antiphony with the rest of the band that create some effective moments of space and tension before the final big chorus. The piano is also given a prominent solo, in the fifth chorus. The percussion too has a more varied and striking role, as is clear from the evocative dark jungle effects of the introduction produced by “an insistent pattern”[12] on booming tom-toms and bass drum. This only then reoccurs once, at the end of the work, to avoid losing its impact. In the choruses, the hi-hat works with the walking bass to create a gathering sense of momentum, no more clearly than at the start of the final chorus where the percussion crashes back in after a break and creates an immediate feeling of forward propulsion that really adds to the drama.

Sugar Rum Cherry has a more laidback style, making use of novel, stark textures that turn the elegant, classical original into a seductive piece of jazz. The stripped back texture means there is no walking bass or piano, and consequently the piece often doesn’t resemble typical big band music. The main feature is a slinky percussion riff that runs throughout and gives a sense of exotic dance, heightened by the use of tom-toms, as are often employed by Ellington in his jungle works). The piece opens with this percussion part alone, and it appears by itself at various other points throughout, creating a desolate musical landscape. This is matched by a harsh saxophone choir, again working in block parallel voicing, which states the opening theme. Ellington also creates a nice contrast by having the second statement of the theme voiced by the higher saxophones, creating a call and response feel. The B and C sections see muted brass block writing take over the original material. This provides the parameters for an improvised saxophone solo that often works in call and response with its accompaniment. Again, there are contrasts of high and low. As the first theme returns for a series of false starts, Ellington gradually reduces and lowers the texture each time, creating a sense of fading away. The original classical movement is completely transformed by this sly arrangement.

Sidney Bechet

One of Ellington’s most renowned abilities was the way he adapted his compositional style to the players he was writing for, creating a unique sound famously termed as ‘The Ellington Effect’. He worked with incredibly talented musicians, who were always superb blues players and improvisers, and he would allow their skill to inform his composing. This is a process that took place with trumpeter and cornet player Bubber Miley, and the clarinettist Sidney Bechet, from whom he learnt that music “should be sharply characterised and openly emotional.”[13] Bechet’s lyricism is evident in Mood Indigo, particularly in Barney Bigard’s clarinet solo, which perfectly fits Bigard’s temperament as a player. Jeff Aldam describes his style as having “a warm, vocalised tone, full of inflections and long glissandi…He is an exceptionally able improviser of the blues.”[14] All these elements abound in his florid yet delicate solo.

Bubber Miley

Koko on the other hand emanates Miley’s ‘jungle style’ influence. The blues tradition of rough, growling vocal tones is imitated by the imprecise intonation and coarse timbre of the instruments, such as Harry Carney’s visceral baritone saxophone sound which opens the piece, and the frequent use of plunger brass punctuation. Sam Nanton also influenced the development of the jungle style, and his Koko improvised trombone solo demonstrates this, with his frequent ‘wa-wa’ mute in typically frequent use. Sonny Greer delivers his energetic tribal drumming effects, and Jimmy Blanton is one of “a series of forward looking bassists”[15] Ellington would use, capable of a “precise, buoyant beat, a rich tone and who could play melodies with impressive speed and lyricism.”[16] This is evident from his alternating walking bass patterns, and lively solo breaks. Ellington’s piano solo meanwhile shows how his own unusual style had developed. Percussive, brusque and dissonant, it anticipates the innovative approach of Thelonius Monk. Ellington’s playing style was “widely admired by other pianists. Modern jazz pianists such as Thelonious Monk, Mal Waldron and Randy Weston have testified to his influence on their playing.”[17]

Paul Gonsalves

Sugar Rum Cherry has a similar jungle approach to instrumentation, but with far more dominant saxophone textures throughout. Again, rough blues timbres are employed, tribal drumming effects, and muted brass. Ellington also brilliantly accommodates a superb tenor saxophone solo improvisation for Paul Gonsalves that gives him plenty of space for his typically “extended improvisations of great swing”.[18] His very breathy, hot approach also matches the desolate mood of the piece.

Harmonically, Ellington like most jazz musicians combined the basic principles of European harmonic progressions, which, as Jeff Aldam describes, “he organised as the bases for extemporisation,”[19] to which he added the blues scale. Ellington also has strong overtones of more sophisticated impressionistic harmony in his work, with Ken Rattenbury noting his use of “impressionistic chordal structures…the closest harmony could come to incorporating the effect of the nontempered intervals formed by blues improvisation against a basic blues accompaniment.”[20] Mood Indigo clearly shows this. It has the same repeating 16 bar chord sequence almost all the way through, allowing for prominent extemporisations. The relatively straightforward chord sequence is enriched with blue flattened thirds, fifths and sevenths, whilst unusual major seventh and ninth chords create the dreamy impressionistic ambience. Mood Indigo also demonstrates how Ellington explored more subtle approaches to chord changes than other jazz musicians of the time, with chords “shaped by very small movements in the line of one or two instruments- for example, a shift of one half step in the clarinet makes the chord change at the end of the first bar.”[21] This gave him far more expressive avenues than other band leaders explored.

Koko demonstrates how later in his career Ellington began “introducing dissonance to an unparalleled degree in jazz,”[22] transforming the underlying twelve bar blues harmonies, and anticipating the greater use of dissonance in be-bop music.  By not modulating at any point, the piece maintains a dramatic intensity. This is furthered by the dissonance, which increases as the texture builds and the various different parts collide, often on top of pedal notes that conflict with the changes in harmony. There are also endless added blue notes, most powerfully so in the big chords of the final chorus. This all creates a growing sense of tension and drama. Koko also anticipates modal jazz as it is in a transposed Aeolian mode.

Sugar Rum Cherry sees these various features all come together. The original theme is harmonised with blue notes and added dissonant chromaticisms, particularly when the melody frequently embarks on chromatic stepwise descents. The B and C sections then provide Ellington with the chordal outline for a hot solo that often deviates from the underlying harmony into more bluesy and dissonant territory.

A strong sense of syncopation and swing are equally vital elements of Ellington’s music. Like other jazz musicians, he inherited the syncopation of ragtime music, and the swung approach to melody and improvisation of the blues. Mood Indigo features a highly laid back rhythmic approach in its main melody. The solos however are highly swung and syncopated throughout, providing a crucial sense of lyricism that matches the reflective mood. Koko has a far more restless and energetic approach, with the immediately syncopated percussion and trombone choir rhythms of the introduction, helping establish the ‘jungle’ style with their sense of exotic dance. The various solos also all feature an element of swing to match the ‘hot’ nature of the piece. Sugar Rum Cherry similarly has syncopated percussion rhythms throughout, and Ellington brilliantly takes Tchaikovsky’s original melodies and transforms them with swung rhythms, taking away their daintiness and replacing it with a dirty, leering quality. Paul Gonsalves then delivers a very rhythmically complex solo filled with irregular phrases, extended periods of swing, unpredictable pauses, and virtuosic passage work.

In analysing these three pieces, not only can we see Ellington’s innovative approach to composition and the profound influence the blues had on his style; we also witness how much his music developed over the years. He grew more sophisticated in his use of contrasting textures and dissonant harmonies, to the extent that he outgrew the three minute recording format that had made him so famous. As such, he began composing larger, more complex works, but always with the same fundamental stylistic principles at heart: blues harmonies, simple structures, hot improvisations, innovative instrumental combinations and evocative textures. Also, because Ellington designed his work specifically for the players he was writing for at the time, these recordings give us the definitive interpretation of the works, as they were intended to sound. Consequently, credit must also be given to the superb set of musicians who contributed so much to Ellington’s great body of work.


Jeff Aldam, “The Ellington Sidemen” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959)

James Lincoln Collier, Duke Ellington, (London, 1989)

Burnett James, “Ellington’s place as a composer,” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959)

Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992 )

Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer,(London and New Haven, 1990)

[1] Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, (London and New Haven, 1990) p52-53

[2] Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992) p98

[3] Ibid, p102-104

[4] Burnett James, “Ellington’s place as a composer,” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959) p150

[5] Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992) p96-98

[6] Gene Lees quoted in Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, (London and New Haven, 1990) p21

[7] Ken Rattenbury,  Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, (London and New Haven, 1990) p92

[8] Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992) p104

[9] Gunther Schuller quoted in Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, (London and New Haven, 1990) p27

[10] Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer,(London and New Haven, 1990) p53

[11] Ibid, p106-108

[12] Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992 ) p110

[13] Ibid, p100

[14]Jeff Aldam, “The Ellington Sidemen” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959) p200

[15] Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992  ) p98

[16] Ibid, p106

[17] Ibid, p115

[18] Jeff Aldam, “The Ellington Sidemen” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959) p206

[19] Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer,(London and New Haven, 1990) p53

[20] Ibid, p53.

[21] James Lincoln Collier, Duke Ellington, (London, 1989) p145

[22] Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992 ) p96

Viva la Revolution: Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Verdi’s Don Carlos

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Verdi’s Don Carlos are French grand operas that both deal with the subject of revolution, an incredibly contentious political topic in the nineteenth century. Both works portray a noble and heroic lead character struggling against the corrupt, malicious and illegitimate powers that be. By way of evocative libretti and powerful musical expression, the audiences’ sympathies are engaged with the oppressed masses in their battle for freedom from the ruling authorities, and hence both these operas actively promote an infectious revolutionary sentiment. However, there are also notable differences between the two works, mainly as a result of the contrasting artistic sensibilities of Rossini and Verdi, and also the different historical contexts in which they were working. Guillaume Tell is a very optimistic work that deals specifically with a successful revolution against oppressive foreign rulers. Don Carlos on the other hand is a far darker entity, exploring the tyranny of absolute rulers, the state and the Church, as well as portraying the hopelessness of trying to combat them.


Both these operas are based on plays by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), a German playwright, poet, historian and philosopher who displayed a strong political agenda throughout his career. He was a key figure in the romantic movement and a passionate libertarian.

It is widely thought that the crucial formative period for Schiller’s political views was his time spent at an academy set up by Karl Eugen, the Duke of Wuttemberg. T.J Reed tells us in his biography of Schiller that the academy was run with “the pupils in military uniform, under military discipline and close supervision; no holidays or compassionate leave; rarely visitors.”[1] Eugen was an absolute monarch who spent lavishly and irresponsibly; he unfairly imprisoned persons he disliked for obscene periods of time, such as the poet and journalist Schubart who was imprisoned for ten years after criticising Eugen and the academy; and his setting up of the academy was largely motivated as a means of training “cadres of unquestionably loyal public service, indebted for and indoctrinated by their education.”[2]

1728 Carl Eugen

Schiller’s adverse reaction to these years was immediately clear from his very first play, The Robbers, published in 1781. It is a historical drama set in sixteenth century Dalberg, which tells the story of a group of revolutionaries, one of whom is a disowned aristocrat, rebelling against the injustice, corruption and hypocrisies of the feudal authorities.


Influenced by the works of Rousseau and the writers of the ‘Sturm und Drang,’[3]  Schiller produced a shocking critique of what T. J. Reed calls, “the evils of absolutism: this is Schiller’s legendary first outburst after years of constraint, the product (he said later) of ‘the unnatural intercourse of genius and oppression.’”[4] So admired was the republican verve of the work that in 1792 Schiller was made an honorary citizen of the French Republic by the revolutionary leaders, and throughout his career he would constantly return to historical dramas exploring similar themes regarding revolution. For example, Don Carlos in 1787, which Reed describes as “an impassioned statement of liberal principles against the legendary tyranny of Phillip II of Spain and the Inquisition.”[5] Also, in 1804 Schiller would produce Wilhelm Tell, a retelling of the famous folk tale about the 14th century Swiss marksmen struggling for Swiss independence from the cruel and corrupt Habsburg Empire.

Historical Context: Rossini and Guillaume Tell  

The choice of Shiller’s plays as subject matter by Rossini and Verdi says a lot about politics in the nineteenth century; the profound influence of the French Revolution and its ideals of ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity.‘ Anthony Arblaster tells us, “Of the political changes that followed from the French Revolution, none was more important than the rise in nationalism.” [6] National freedom became a hugely important phenomenon, causing a string of uprisings against oppressive foreign rulers, such as the Greek War of Independence from 1821-1829. Linked in with nationalism was a dramatic surge in republicanism, with absolutist rulers being accused of corruption, illegitimacy and oppression, leading to a series of revolutions such as in Spain and Portugal in 1820, or the 1825 Decembrist Revolt in Russia.

This post-Revolution unrest was unsurprisingly also evident in France during the 1820’s, where in 1829, Rossini would produce Guillaume Tell. The Bourbon monarchy had been restored in 1814 under Louis XVIII (succeeded by Charles X in 1824), but as Jane Fulcher argues, “the charter of the Restoration created aristocratic institutions in its political laws, but left a democratic principle in the civil laws that would eventually destroy the edifice.“[7]  Many people felt that political freedoms promised in La Charte were not being delivered, and this situation gradually led to the July revolution of 1830 where a constitutional monarchy was declared, and Charles X was forced to stand down in favour of the more liberal Louis-Philippe I.

Crucially, the Restoration Opera of the 1820’s was largely identified with the monarchy, being financed mainly by the King. Fulcher argues that “its concern was with royal image…It was a special kind of political institution for the crown, a rhetorical means to proclaim the monarch’s political achievements and glory.”[8] As such, it was necessary for it to have popular appeal and relevancy to the people so as not to harm the King’s already flagging status. However, at this time audiences were enjoying Schiller-esque tales of nationalism and revolution that were in tune with their democratic ideals and the contempt they had for the monarchy. This is evident from the output of the less stringently censored boulevard theatres of the period, where according to Fulcher, “a bevy of works about notorious leaders of past revolts began to appear. Favourite among these were the stories of the first popular revolt in Naples and that of the legendary Swiss revolutionary leader, Guillaume Tell.”[9] Hence, to rival these theatres, the Opera had to stage similar stories whilst also trying to avoid stirring revolutionary sentiment.

This situation is undoubtedly part of the reason Rossini was lured by the Opera to come work in France in 1824, and in many respects, he was the perfect composer. Incredibly popular and politically ambiguous, as Fulcher says, “His style had the advantage of being both liberal and royalist at the same time,”[10]  and throughout his career, both these sides of his personality are evident. He was court composer from 1816 to 1822 for the Bourbon King Ferdinand I of Naples, he composed cantatas in 1822 for the congress of European powers at Verona, and in 1825 he wrote a single act opera to celebrate the coronation of Charles X.[11] However, he also composed ‘Inno dell’Indipendenza’ to celebrate the brief Italian liberation from Austria in 1815, conducted a charity concert in 1826 to raise money for the Greeks in their war of independence, and in 1848 composed a patriotic hymn during the revolutions.[12] From this evidence, it is probable that Rossini at least had some sympathy with liberal causes, but as Arblaster concludes, it is also likely that “As in the case of Mozart, Rossini’s command of his musical resources may have enabled him to express feelings and attitudes with which, ultimately, he did not wholly or deeply identify with.”[13]

His first opera for Paris was Le Siege de Corinthe in 1826, a historical drama about the Greek rebellion against Turkey in the 1450’s. This was deemed very appropriate as it provides a sympathetic portrayal of a revolution which audiences at the time would have identified with, but only in the “specific context of political domination by a distinctly foreign power;”[14] hence not relevant to republicanism in France. Furthermore, the revolution fails. These factors are also true for 1828’s La Muette de Portici by Auber. Given that both these operas were very successful, it is unsurprising that the typically audience-aware Rossini would then approach another revolution centred work, Guillaume Tell, as suitable subject matter in 1829, (especially considering it was already a popular story in the theatres of the time.) Although it depicts a successful revolution, it was still that of a revolt against an oppressive foreign power, and so politically acceptable to the authorities.

It seems safe to conclude then that Rossini’s Guillaume Tell was not a dynamic political statement. Instead, Rossini was following audience tastes for revolutionary tales as encouraged by his employers, the French elite and monarchy, in order to try and boost their own popularity. Most importantly, Guillaume deals with revolution against tyrannical foreign rule, rather than preaching republican ideals, and hence wasn’t making a specific political statement in regards to 1829 France.

Historical Context: Verdi and Don Carlos

Whilst Rossini is often seen as politically ambiguous, the same cannot be said of Verdi. As Paul Robinson states, “Of all the great opera composers, Verdi is the most political. Issues of power and authority figure more centrally in his operas than they do in any of his artistic peers.”[15] His republican political views are evident from his letters, and his friendships with “a group of Milanese republicans and literati”[16] including Giuseppe Mazzini, the patriotic Italian philosopher and political activist who fought for democracy and republicanism, views that would influence Verdi in becoming a passionate liberal, dedicated to the cause of the Risorgimento. “As a frequent victim of political censorship himself, he was readily drawn to the ideals of individual freedom and self-determination, and he was no less ardently committed to delivering Italy from her Hapsburg oppressors.”[17] Evidence for Verdi’s deep enthusiasm for Italian unification can be seen in a letter of 1848, which he wrote after hearing of the revolution in Milan.

“I left the moment I heard the news, but I could see nothing but these stupendous barricades. Honour to these heroes! Honour to all Italy, which in this moment is truly great! The hour of her liberation has sounded.”[18]

However, Verdi’s political views, although always founded in republicanism, would evolve throughout his life. In the 1840’s, he was a product of his era “a time of rising political consciousness, as the conservative hegemony of the post-Napoleonic era gave way to a revival of liberalism and nationalism.”[19] This was the period of his great patriotic operas such as Nabucco, with its swelling choruses and profound sense of optimism. It is disputed how overtly political these operas are, but it is notable that during this period Verdi would adapt no less than three of Schiller’s plays into operas, including The Robbers into I Masnadieri, showing his affinity with the playwright’s liberal views.

Camillo Benso - Conte di Cavour III

However, post 1848 and the failure of the various revolutions that took place in the Italian states, Verdi became increasingly cynical politically. He became an admirer of Cavour, the cunning Italian politician who would play a vital role in the unification of Italy, and whose views can be seen as a representation of ‘Realpolitik,’ where politics is “guided by considerations of power rather than ideology.”[20] Verdi’s opera’s of the late 1850’s and the 1860’s reflect this new cynicism, including Don Carlos in 1867. As Paul Robinson argues, “The ideals of liberty and nationhood still remain significant themes in these works, but they are overshadowed by a new sobriety, a darker less sanguine vision of the political process than one finds in the early operas.”[21] This was perhaps also influenced by Verdi’s own brief political career, being persuaded by Cavour to stand for the first national parliament, a post he would hold until 1865 when he resigned. Also important in these operas is Verdi’s anti-clericalism which comes across very strongly. These views originated from the role of the Catholic Church in Italy, and its opposition to liberalism. This is particularly evident in a letter from 1870, where Verdi would write about the completion of Italy’s unification, and his ill feelings.

“I cannot reconcile Parliament with the College of Cardinals, liberty of Press with the Inquisition, civil law with the Syllabus…Pope and King of Italy: I cannot envisage them together even in this letter.”[22]

Napoleon III

Given his views and his affiliation with Schiller, Don Carlos was an obvious choice of topic for Verdi that had been recommended to him as early as the 1850’s. France at the time was under the rule of Napoleon III who was attempting to court supporters from the left with libertarian policies, such as allowing a greater level of freedom in political discussion with his 1860 removal of the gagging of the French Press. Hence, Verdi was able to express himself politically with less fear of censorship, producing a powerful critique of authoritarian rule and the Church. These were topics that would still be widely sympathised with in France, where Napoleon III‘s dictatorship was growing increasingly unpopular.

The Libretti

The fundamental similarity between these two operas is their sympathetic portrayals of revolutionary libertarianism via plot and dialogue. In Guillaume Tell we see the Swiss trying to go about their simple, peaceful lives in the forest at one with nature, but being cruelly oppressed by the Austrians. They are unable to practice their traditions, their freedom is restricted and their people subjugated.

Tell is portrayed as a noble and brave patriot, mortified by the tyranny of the Austrians, stating in the first act, “We no longer have a Fatherland.” He preaches of Helvetia as “a field of tortures, where they harvest its children,” and he also makes grand revolutionary proclamations such as “Independence or death.” We hear of Austrian atrocities, such as the soldier attempting to rape a local girl, whose father is then set to be arrested for murder until Tell courageously helps him escape. Their successful passage over the dangerous lake is described by the rejoicing Swiss as “God’s handiwork.” However, their joy is short-lived as the bullying Austrian soldiers demand to know who helped the father escape. The revered Swiss elder Melcthal is then murdered by the Austrians after he refuses to reveal Tell’s identity.

In contrast to the noble Tell, the cruel Austrian Governor Gessler is portrayed as evil and bullying. He forces the Swiss to pay homage to him, and when Tell bravely refuses, Gessler has him arrested, and also his son Jemmy. We then witness the famous scene where Gessler maliciously forces Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head with an arrow, whilst the surrounding Austrians mock Tell’s torment. After he successfully shoots the apple off, Gessler orders his imprisonment in the dungeons. Given all this, the audience inevitably sympathises with the Swiss and wills their success when they rebel in the final act, resulting in Tell assassinating Gessler.

Interestingly, as Arblaster points out, by removing some of the more complex moral issues from Schiller’s play, Rossini and his librettists actually make the opera even more politically potent. There is no question of the morality of the revolution in the opera, as there is in the play, and the portrayals of good and evil couldn’t be much more straightforward, producing “a more explicit and unambiguous political drama than Schiller had done.”[23]

Don Carlos portrays similar libertarian revolutionary ideals, although it is undoubtedly a more complex work. The first example of this at the start of the second act, where the monks are chanting a prayer for the deceased Charles V, discussing his foolishness in aspiring to “rule the world, forgetting Him who guides the stars…His pride was great, his folly immense.” This immediately sets up the theme of immoral and illegitimate absolute rule. This is further explored by Rodrigo’s entrance, having just come from the oppressed land of Flander’s. He entreats Carlos, “on behalf of that blood soaked country…The people are on their knees. They raise their arms to you.”

Rodrigo later make similar entreaties to King Phillip, a scene from Schiller that Verdi insisted was put in the libretto.[24] He talks passionately and at great length about “that country once so fair, that is now but a desert of ashes, a place of death and despair. There in the street there are orphans, they’re starving and beg for food…smeared with their own parents blood.” This sort of vivid imagery goes beyond what appears in Guillaume Tell, and certainly engages the audience’s sympathies onto the side of Rodrigo and Flanders.

Phillip meanwhile is only really troubled by his own affairs and appears disinterested. He also repeatedly warns Rodrigo, “Beware my inquisitor.” This sets up the aspect of the tyranny of the Church, a theme which is elaborated upon in Act Three where an ‘Auto-da-fe’, the mass burning of heretics, is staged. This is interrupted by Carlos who brings some Flemish deputies with him to confront the king and plead for mercy. “All your subjects implore you in their grief and distress, Oh help us in our pain.” The King once again is unmoved, orders Carlos disarmed and the burning goes ahead.

The following scene was also insisted upon by Verdi. It introduces the evil Grand Inquisitor, who is portrayed as cruel and hypocritical, telling the paranoid King that God would pardon him if he murdered Carlos, as well as insisting on the imprisonment of Rodrigo to stop the King being influenced by reformers. He actually threatens Phillip himself unless he gives Rodrigo up, brutally portraying the tyrannical power of the Church, and the dark methods they and Philip will resort to in order to hang onto power.

This is in stark contrast to the heroic Rodrigo who in the following act frames himself as a conspirator in order to save the imprisoned Carlos, and is murdered by Philip. A revolting crowd then arrives to demand Carlos’s freedom, and as in Guillaume Tell, the audiences’ sympathies are inevitably with the crowd and the noble Carlos rather than the twisted oppressors Phillip and the Church. However, unlike Guillaume Tell, there is no happy resolution here. The crowd are subdued by the arrival of the Grand Inquisitor, and in the following scene Phillip attempts to re-arrest Carlos, only for him to be kidnapped into the underworld by the ghost of Charles V. This bizarre shock ending encapsulates Verdi’s new found political cynicism and pessimism; the ghost states to Carlos, “The peace that your heart so yearns for will be found at the throne of grace,” suggesting there is little hope in life for an end to political or religious tyranny. As Arblaster puts it, “This is the difference between Verdi’s treatment of Risorgimento themes and that of Rossini in Guillaume Tell, where the general rejoicing finally blots out all else. Perhaps because Verdi was closer to the struggle, he found it harder to be wholly optimistic about it. Tragic heroism is at the core of his work.”[25]

La Muette de Portici

Another aspect the operas do have in common is that they both explore the profound role personal factors play in the political story. This is a theme also explored in both of Schiller’s plays, which seeks to help the audience sympathise and identify with the characters. As with La Muette de Portici, (where a fisherman’s mute sister, Fenella, is the trigger for a revolution,) in these works characters’ political actions are often motivated by personal reasons, there is a deep sense of brotherhood between the revolutionaries, and also, characters sometimes must sacrifice their own personal happiness for their political beliefs.

In Guillaume Tell, Arnold must choose between his love for his country and his love for Mathilde, a choice he is only able to make when the murder of his father causes him to seek revenge on the Austrians. Similarly, it is a father protecting his daughter from rape that initially causes Tell to become an outlaw, and it is in protecting his own son that he ends up being imprisoned. Finally, there are a great deal of moments promoting the sentiment of brotherhood throughout the opera, such as Tell, Arnold and Walther’s vow to free Switzerland at the end of act 2, followed by the arrival of the different Swiss cantons, all come together for revolution.

Gilles de Van writes of Don Carlos that “The opera’s originality lies precisely in its attempt to represent the interrelationship between individual and community. “[26] This is evident throughout the opera, as individuals personal problems intertwine with political issues. For example, when Elisabeth and Carlos meet in the first act and fall in love, Elisabeth is then pressured into marrying Philip instead so as to cement the peace treaty between France and Spain, a sacrifice she makes. This in turn causes Carlos the despair that turns him against his father and makes him promote the Flemish cause. Also important is the character of Princess Eboli who is in love with Carlos, causing her to rouse the angry crowd that demand his freedom. There are also several duets between Carlos and Rodrigo where they proclaim their brotherhood and resolve to help Flanders.


There are many similarities between how Rossini and Verdi approach these operas musically, the most obvious being the use of rousing choruses. This is a very effective device in political operas, as the chorus can represent the voice of the people and also create that infectious rousing sense of revolution to engage the audience’s sympathies and passions. Big choruses abound in Guillaume Tell, where Anselm Gerhard argues that Rossini “drastically reduced the importance of soloists. On the Swiss side, Tell himself is left as the only significant character apart from “the people” and the sentimental tenor-hero Arnold.”[27] Perhaps the most striking example of this is at the end of Act 2 with the arrival of all the Swiss cantons. The first canton is originally heard as an off-stage unaccompanied chorus, singing stately, major key, hymn like music, announcing their arrival and intention to join the fight.

The rest of the cantons then arrive, and the music gets louder, bigger and more rousing as loyalty is sworn to Tell and his cause. There are stirring brass fanfares in the accompaniment, rapid ascending string flourishes; Tell sings a noble descending major arpeggio with spiky dotted rhythms, and each phrase he sings is responded to and imitated by the chorus, creating the sense of him as a great leader.

Also typical of this section are the big heroic leaps in each vocal part, creating a sense of passion and daring on important words, such as “traitors.”

This section climaxes with the repeated cry of “To arms,” in rapid emphatic rhythms; cries followed by big orchestral chords with lots of brass and percussion, as well as rapid string scales featuring rapturous chromaticism, more brass fanfares, and more rapid dotted rhythms. All combined, this creates an incredibly evocative, militaristic sense of fervour.

Similarly, at the end of the opera, the Swiss celebrate victory, beginning with a more serene section reflecting nature and the peace that has been restored by the revolution. There’s lots of fluttering harp and ethereal flute, with a static enraptured vocal line and simple diatonic harmonies. This gradually gets louder, with repetitions of the word “Liberty” as the opera comes to its climax.

Don Carlos also features enormous rousing choruses to inspire its audiences. One important example of this is in Act 3, where the people plead with Philip to have pity on the Flemish deputies Carlos has brought before him. They are given impassioned, lyrical and pleading descending vocal lines, and lush, sentimental harmonies completely at odds with Philip’s hurried, antagonised and fragmented part.

The chorus swells, getting more impassioned, repeating the same music over and over, giving a sense of the difficulty in attempting to persuade Philip; they beg him to have pity on the poor Flemish, “bleeding and in chains” which also sees darker harmonies emerge, and more dissonance.

To add to this effect of increasing passion, Verdi later gives the chorus an ascending sequence, rising each time with more lush sentimental harmonies and some striking chromaticism. This creates a striking effect of zealous pleading, all to no avail with the unmoved Philip.

This moving chorus is one of the most heart-wrenching in the opera. A more violent confrontational chorus occurs as the crowd come to demand the release of Carlos from prison in the following act.  As Rossini does in Guillaume, Verdi utilises the incredibly rousing effect of having the crowd first heard off-stage, further anticipation inspired by frantic oscillating chromatic strings, rapid repeated brass chords, and the choruses’ dramatic leaps and violent rhythms.

This is then followed by an incredibly angry chorus; fast, loud, in a minor key with lots of dissonances and chromaticism, violent orchestral outburst such as brass fanfares, rapid string flourishes, and restless fragmented vocal parts filled with giant leaps. This perfectly captures the outrage of the people with the appalling actions of Philip and the Grand Inquisitor.

Another way Rossini and Verdi portray the political aspects of these operas in the music is the evocative manner in which they depict the evil of the regimes that need to be overthrown. In Guillaume Tell, the Swiss are given calm, simple and diatonic music when left in peace in the forest. However, this is constantly interrupted by horn fanfares, announcing the arrival of the Austrians, brilliantly symbolising the disruption the Austrians cause. The Austrians’ cruel actions are also symbolised in the music, such as at the end of Act 1 when they arrest Melchtal; furious strings go back and forth representing the outrage of both sides.

Similarly, the presentation of Gessler in Act 3 is highly unflattering; as usual with ‘bad’ characters he is a bass, and he is given pompous dotted rhythms, echoed in the brass, representing his self importance.

As he orders the arrest of Jemmy, Rossini represents it with a loud, ugly diminished seventh harmony, evoking the repugnance of his actions.

His music grows even uglier after Tell’s success, where his fury abounds and he is accompanied with violent rapid chromaticism, and his own vocal line is highly fragmented with aggressive rhythms and dissonance.

In Don Carlos, Verdi also uses these sorts of evocative musical effects to represent the evil of the powers that be, although to far greater effect. For example, there are Rodrigo’s impassioned pleas to King Philip regarding Flanders. As he lists the atrocities occurring there, the music evokes them with violent syncopated rhythms, gathering speed, sudden striking orchestral outbursts, restless strings, rapid repeated notes, extreme dynamic contrasts, lots of dissonances and completely unexpected turns of phrase and harmony. There is also an incredibly fragmented vocal line, filled with leaps and unusual rhythms. It is an extraordinarily redolent section that brilliantly captures the horror of what he is describing.

There is also the chilling characterisation of the Grand Inquisitor (a bass, as is typical.) He is accompanied with grotesque orchestration comprised of low, grinding strings, low brass discords, minor harmonies and a slow, bleak vocal line replete with ugliness.

Consequently, both these two operas both have very strong political overtones. As they were based on Schiller’s plays, they inevitably carry his liberal, republican beliefs throughout. However, it is easy to see that Guillaume Tell was meant as a more straightforward piece of audience pleasing entertainment than Don Carlos was, thanks to its simplified story and themes, and overall more upbeat feel; this would have been expected of Rossini’s more populist, less political style. Verdi’s Don Carlos on the other hand, is a much darker, more complex work, reflecting Verdi’s disillusionment with politics and religion. However, this is not to take away from either work; they both represent their respective tales through masterful musical expression that superbly reinforces the political ideology of Schiller’s original works.


Anthony Arblaster, Viva la Liberta, (Verso, 2000)

Don Carlos/Verdi: Opera Guide 46 ,ed. Jennifer Batchelor, (Calder Publications Ltd, 1992)

Jane Fulcher, The Nation’s image, (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Anselm Gerhard, The Urbanisation of Opera,(Oxford, 2000)

T. J. Reed, Schiller: Past Masters, (Oxford University Press, 1991)

John George Robertson, 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica/Schiller,  http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Schiller,_Johann_Christoph_Friedrich_von

Paul Robinson, Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss, (Cornell University Press, 1985)

[1] T. J. Reed, Schiller: Past Masters, (Oxford University Press, 1991) p9

[2] Ibid

[4] T. J. Reed, Schiller: Past Masters, p18

[5] Ibid, p11

[6] Anthony Arblaster, Viva la Liberta, (Verso, 2000) p63

[7] Jane Fulcher, The Nation’s image, (Cambridge University Press, 1987) p15

[8] Ibid, p12

[9] Ibid, p23

[10] Ibid, p25

[11] Anthony Arblaster, Viva la Liberta, p66

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid, p14

[14] Jane Fulcher, The Nation’s image, p24

[15] Paul Robinson, Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss, (Cornell University Press, 1985) p155

[16] Ibid, p155

[17] Ibid

[18] Verdi letter to his librettist, Francesco Piave, quoted by Anthony Arblaster, Viva la Liberta, p95

[19] Paul Robinson, Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss, p155

[20] Ibid, p161

[21] Ibid, p156

[22] Verdi letter to Clarina Maffei, quoted by Anthony Arblaster, Viva la Liberta, p94

[23] Anthony Arblaster, Viva la Liberta, p5

[24] Julian Budden, A Grand Opera with a Difference, appears in Don Carlos/Verdi: Opera Guide 46 ,ed. Jennifer Batchelor, (Calder Publications Ltd, 1992) p8

[25] Anthony Arblaster, Viva la Liberta, p66

[26] Gilles de Van, “Off the Beaten Track” appears in Don Carlos/Verdi: Opera Guide 46 ,ed. Jennifer Batchelor, p14

[27] Anselm Gerhard, The Urbanisation of Opera,(Oxford, 2000) p88

Stuart McCallum: Distilled

Stuart McCallum: Distilled 

Released – 03/10/2011

Label – Naim Jazz

Catalogue – naimcd169

For his third album, Distilled, Stuart McCallum draws on the various strands of his musical background to produce an effective, if somewhat simplistic, hybrid work. His experience as a jazz musician, his time as a guitarist in The Cinematic Orchestra, and the combination of electronic music with traditional instruments that characterised his first two albums, are all elements that fuse together on this latest effort.

The album’s title is a reference to the fact that all the tracks are based around samples of his previous work. This is an important factor in deciding the nature of the music, with repetition and simplicity the order of the day. The style employed is a mixture of minimalism, electronica and jazz, with basic but evocative chord sequences providing a firm basis for hypnotic overlying riffs, psychedelic effects and jazzy improvisations. Melody and harmony are kept as simple as possible in order to maximise the potential for exploring a variety of enchanting soundscapes, iridescent textures and intriguing instrumental effects. Whilst this creates an immediately beguiling audio experience, it also means that the record lacks any great depth or complexity, and so suffers accordingly on repeat listens.

Take for example the opening track ‘dR Doctor’. An extremely chilled and trippy mood is immediately established with static harmonies, mesmerising riffs and vivid synth effects. Aesthetically, it can’t be faulted, but there is little else to discover after the initial impact of hearing it for the first time. This remains common practice throughout the rest of the album.

However, this is not to deny the skill with which McCallum has achieved what would appear to be his particular goals with this record.  As is typical of minimalist music, the wash of sound created gradually builds as, one by one, more instruments/sounds are added and parts grow in complexity. Further psychedelic mystique is added by delay and filter effects on the guitar, most notably during an improvised solo that builds up towards the climax of the track.

This gradual increase in texture, so common in minimalism, is even more evident at the start of the next number, ‘Hillcrest Part I’; and ‘Hilcrest Part ii’ sees the first real jazz element come across, thanks to a momentary Latinesque electric guitar solo. This piece also establishes a change to a more anguished mood via some dissonant harmonies and drawn out strings.

This effect is developed further in the next track ‘La Cigale’ with its bleak, low pitched string chords straining away in parallel downwards motion. A very Latin infused acoustic guitar solo then enters, complementing the already despair filled temperament. However, this proves to be short-lived as the piece livens up with some bouncier rhythms and another jazzy improvised guitar solo.

The most minimalist sounding moment of the album is the opening to ‘Fokey Dokey’, thanks to a bewitching harp figuration and yet more evocative synth effects. This particular number is also demonstrative of one of the key problems with album, in that after a wonderful beginning, McCallum seems to struggle to know where to go next. Consequently, we get a second half that, although aesthetically attractive, sounds too much like what we have already heard from the previous tracks.

Fortunately, later on in the album, we hear a darker soundscape emerge, most notably during the second half of ‘Inflight.’  Wild, distorted electric guitars suddenly grow so violent and impassioned that it proves a very powerful jolt when heard in the context of the rest of the pieces.

McCallum then rounds things off with the title track ‘Distilled’, which opens virtually in the style of dance music thanks to some catchy electronica and a frisky drum beat, providing an exciting conclusion to the album.

Whilst more variety and development in places could have made this a somewhat more interesting piece of work, there is no denying McCallum’s success at what he set out to do. The stark, basic harmonies and simple, repetitive musical ideas he uses allow him to explore vivid instrumental textures and expressive sound effects, creating a rich and enrapturing world of sound to lose yourself in. Whether the record will continue to be so effective after a few hearings is doubtful.