The Opera and Orchestral Music

Alan D. Strange

When the editor asked me if I wished to write on the value of listening to and attending the opera, or of listening to and attending the symphony orchestra, I felt as if he had asked a gourmand to write about food. I readily agreed and was delighted at the prospect!

I like music in a variety of genres, but, for me, there is nothing quite like opera or the orchestra. I should note that I exclude from this evaluation the music of the church, which holds a unique place in my heart and life, as I trust it does in the life of many of you.

But outside the music of the church, there is so much music that one may sample, so why should I bother to make a case for opera and orchestral music? My case is not that one should listen only to that, but rather that there should be some significant place for this vast landscape of music in what you listen to outside of church. I do this in the full recognition that many people do not listen to such music at all, and I would challenge you that failure ever to listen to this sort of music leaves you musically impoverished. This will serve as a little primer, utterly unnecessary and too simple for some. For others, it may help you to get started on a musical journey that you’ll never regret.

One may start with that which is closest to church music, namely sacred music, beginning with that greatest of composers (as some regard him), Johann Sebastian Bach. One may listen to one of his many cantatas, written for Sunday performances in his Lutheran church in Leipzig. One may choose his St. Matthew Passion, his St. John Passion, or his Mass in B Minor. Also quite delightful, but of a more secular nature, are his six Brandenburg Concertos, his French and English Suites, or his other keyboard works (think Goldberg Variations or The Well-Tempered Clavier, not to mention his great organ pieces). Other sacred music worth sampling may be found in the oratorios of Handel (not just Messiah, but also Samson and Israel in Egypt—twenty-nine oratorios altogether), Haydn (Creation), and Mendelsohn (Elijah). The German Requiem of Brahms is especially moving.

We’ll start in “secular music” with the Baroque era. In addition to Bach and Handel, there are Telemann, Buxtehude, and Vivaldi, whose Four Seasons never fails to please. We could go to medieval (Gregorian chant, madrigal, etc.) and Renaissance music (Josquin, Palestrina, Gabrieli, etc.), which has become more popular in recent years, but Baroque is the beginning of what’s called music of “common practice” and a good starting place for most. Then there’s Classical: Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven are essential, with the last being the bridge to the Romantic Era of the nineteenth century.

Beethoven’s nine symphonies are masterpieces that remain unequalled. His Third Symphony, in fact, is widely recognized as the transition piece from the Classical to the Romantic era (I’ll never forget a performance of this with the Boston Symphony and Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood). His Fifth is rhythmically genius, the Seventh is, according to Wagner, “the apotheosis of the dance,” and the Ninth points to a whole new world, with the introduction of soloists and a chorus in the last movement. Brahms was so intimidated, as were others, by Beethoven’s symphonies that it took him years to write his First Symphony. Afterwards he wrote three others that became, together with the First, masterpieces in their own right. Symphonies of this period likely to be enjoyed by New Horizons readers would also include those of Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák.

Mozart is probably the best place to start one’s journey into opera (though Handel wrote forty-two operas that some of us love): Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, and The Magic Flute are themselves enough to furnish a lifetime of delight. For Italian opera, Puccini and Verdi are indispensable. For Puccini, La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot are essential. For Verdi, La traviata, Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and Aida are required. Don’t miss nineteenth-century French opera (Gounod, Massenet, Saint-Saëns), which has an incomparable sweetness; think of the “Méditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs.

Backing up to bel canto (“beautiful singing”), the main players are Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. I could talk about Donizetti and Bellini all day, but let me just commend these: for the former, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Daughter of the Regiment, and The Elixir of Love, and the latter, Norma, I Puritani, and La sonnambula. For those who like the German operas of Mozart and Beethoven (Fidelio was his one opera), Wagner reaches the height of what he called the “music drama.” One should not miss his Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Tristan und Isolde, before getting to his Ring Cycle and Die Meistersinger.

Wagner is a good bridge to the later symphonists Bruckner and Mahler (whose “Resurrection” Symphony is gorgeous), who themselves serve as a link to greats like Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and others in the twentieth century like Sibelius, Prokofiev, Holst, and Vaughn Williams. The French Impressionists (Debussy and Ravel) are not to be bypassed; they recall earlier composers of piano music like Chopin and Liszt.

If you are procuring music, make sure that you spend a bit more and obtain recordings by top orchestras or opera companies (led by great conductors like Furtwängler, Karajan, Abbado, Muti, and Levine). For orchestras, look for the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and in this country the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and other major orchestras. As for opera, the Metropolitan Opera of New York has no peer in this country (or perhaps the world nowadays); great international companies include the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden, London), the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), the Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera, and the Bayreuth Festival (for Wagner).

As for performers, going back to Bach, one would not want to miss Marie-Claire Alain or Ton Koopman on the organ. For the piano, there are showmen like Vladimir Horowitz and Van Cliburn, and then there are pianists’ pianists like Murray Perahia and Alfred Brendel. For the violin, Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh, Itzhak Perlman, or Joshua Bell could join Yo-Yo Ma or Jacqueline du Pré on the cello. The French have had their share of instrumental masters, with few coming close to Maurice André on the trumpet and Jean-Pierre Rampal on the flute. Two of the best orchestral musicians I’ve ever heard played trumpet and flute in the CSO: Adolph “Bud” Herseth and Mathieu Dufour. Dufour has flawless technique, and Herseth was famous for his legato (connected, continuous, and smooth) playing and for making his instrument sound like the human voice.

Speaking of the human voice, in the bel canto repertoire, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, and Marilyn Horne were a remarkable troika. For Verdi, Leontyne Price, Carlo Bergonzi, and Leonard Warren are first rate; for Puccini, Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, and Robert Merrill. In the German repertoire, Fritz Wunderlich, Peter Schreier, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau delight endlessly, as do Birgit Nilsson and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Current singers one might look for are Angela Meade, Anna Netrebko, Ramón Vargas, and Cecilia Bartoli. I have heard many of the more recent singers live, as well as some of the older ones. There is nothing quite like hearing a great singer in the opera house. It is the most skillful and gorgeous use of the greatest instrument. I’ll never forget hearing Beverly Sills when young, Kathleen Battle in a magnificent recital, Juan Diego Flórez at the beginning of his glorious career, and Luciano Pavarotti at the Met in brilliant voice.

The point of all of this is aural beauty. Few things in creation are as moving as music. The organ, the violin, the piano, Maria Callas, Jussi Björling, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and the Vienna Boys Choir all speak to us at deep, virtually indescribable levels. They all testify to the God who is there; such purposefulness and beauty make it unreasonable to imagine them to be the products of random chance. Every note sounded gives glory to the God who is the ultimate author of all that is lovely and beautiful in music (Phil. 4:8).

The author is professor of church history at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. New Horizons, March 2015.


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