14 August 2011

they wept because "they didn't know something so beautiful could be done in America"




In conjunction with their amazing reunion of the Stein collection this summer, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is sponsoring a revival/restaging/partial revision of the Gertude Stein/Virgil Thomson modernist milestone, 4 Saints in 3 Acts, by the fabulous Ensemble Parallele. It runs this Thursday, 18 August, through Sunday, 21 August, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Get your tickets here.

4 Saints in 3 Acts, one of the few operas whose librettist is always given equal billing with the composer, has always been one of my all-time favorite operas. I have been fascinated by it since I first heard about it, probably when I was around 13 and reading something by or about Gertrude Stein. It was one of the first operas I bought (on cassette; this was before CDs) and listening to it is one of the few things that can reliably make me happy, even after all these years.

This is a somewhat arbitrary list of related materials, for anyone equally fascinated by this Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson collaboration:

Thomson, who was a music critic for many years at the New York Herald Tribune, is one of those musicians like Berlioz whose writing is almost as entertaining as his music. He wrote quite a lot about 4 Saints, its genesis and reception. His autobiography and his selected writings are vivid and provocative, though as with all autobiographies you might want to check what he says against a more disinterested source, particularly the Tommasini biography mentioned below. Actually, the Virgil Thomson Reader I have seems to be different from the one linked to above, and is now I guess out of print. I read the Reader and the autobiography so long ago that I should probably re-read them.

Stein wrote less about the aftermath of 4 Saints, perhaps because she and Thomson had been quarrelling at the time of the premiere and she didn't even see it until her tour of the USA, when it happened to be staged in Chicago when she was there. She mentions it in passing in several places in Everybody's Autobiography, the sort-of sequel to her surprise (and surprising) best-seller, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. She did enjoy the extra celebrity brought to her by the opera's unexpected success.

A few years ago I bought a used copy of the 1934 first printing of the text, which is the classic "slim volume of verse." It has an introduction by Stein's friend and defender, Carl van Vechten, who suggests that in both words and action 4 Saints is no more obscure and convoluted than Ponchielli's La Gioconda. Whoever owned this copy earlier wrote on the flyleaf in pencil "Nobody knows the Opera I seen, nobody knows but Gertrude" with the initials F.P.A. below, who is either the newspaperman Franklin P. Adams (how do I even know that name?) or the pencilling quipster him- or herself. You can find both the Autobiography and the text of 4 Saints in Volume 1 of the Library of America's two-volume Gertrude Stein collection.

About a year ago Oxford published the collected letters (to each other) of Stein and Thomson, under the title Composition as Conversation. It's thoroughly and helpfully annotated, and quite entertaining, though I'm only about half-way through it since letters, like lyric poetry, need space around them and do not benefit from cramming. It's always fascinating to see how much of a writer's style is simply a natural extension of personality and how much gets into the finished product. For some letters are a completely different thing from their "real" writing. Not surprisingly Stein is not one of these, though she can be fairly direct and matter-of-fact. Thomson usually resists the powerful rhythms of her style and manages to keep on sounding like himself.

Anthony Tommasini's biography of the composer (Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle) is affectionate but not uncritical, and pretty much indispensible if you're interested in Thomson and his times. The discussion of 4 Saints is particularly insightful on the work's staging and cultural milieu.

Steven Watson's Prepare for Saints is entirely about the first production of the opera. Some of the Amazon reviews seem particularly clueless about this book, commenting that it's full of gossip instead of whatever it was that reader was looking for; but it's not a literary study of the text or a musicological study of the opera; it's a cultural history, so, yeah, there's a lot of what you might call the higher gossip about who was quarrelling with whom and who was sleeping with whom and who snubbed whom and how somehow art gets produced while all the rest is going on. It's a thorough and very interesting book.

Incidentally Watson is speaking at the Contemporary Jewish Museum about 4 Saints this Thursday before the premiere of the new production, but I see by their website that it's sold out. But the CJM's Gertude Stein exhibit is also worth a visit or two, and includes some brief footage of the Mark Morris Dance Group production of 4 Saints, last staged here around six years ago. (As far as I know a film of Mark Morris's production is not publicly available; I assume the footage they use is from the MMDG's archives.)

The name Chick Austin kept recurring in all these accounts; he was the director of the Hartford Atheneum who first managed to get the opera staged and who helped make it a sensation. He has his own excellent biography by Eugene Gaddis, Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America. If you wonder how museums went from the personal fiefs of rich collectors and connoisseurs to public, academically-inclined institutions, or if you wonder how modern art (that is, modern painting, not necessarily modern music) became widely seen (whether you like it or not) as the major art of our time, then you should read this book. It made me regret that I never went down to Hartford in the years I lived in Boston. It's fascinating to see how influential were many of Austin's personal interests and tastes (in baroque art, in circuses and movies and other "low" forms of art, in Picasso and other modernists, and even in the museum as a place not just for paintings but also for theater and for parties). Gaddis's even-handed approach to Austin's bisexuality is a model for such discussions: he doesn't brush it aside, but he doesn't dwell on it at the expense of Austin's more important achievements, and he doesn't naively insist, as many would these days, that Austin was "really" gay. Austin was married with children but had a number of male companions both before and during his marriage; he seemed to value both types of relationship, though at the end of his life he abruptly dumped his long-time male companion and returned permanently to his wife, announcing he never wanted to see the friend again. (I've forgotten the man's name, which I guess is rather Chick Austin of me, but he ended up working in a men's clothing store in Florida.)

Well, sexuality is sort of an unavoidable undercurrent in discussions of 4 Saints, among other things. I think it was in Tommasini's biography that I read that the original cast used to refer to the creators among themselves as "Mr Stein and Miss Thomson." Since a number of the (male) performers were sleeping with various of the (male) collaborators, I assume this was a somewhat affectionate gesture, even if they didn't use the nicknames in front of Thomson. There's a provocative and intriguing discussion of sexuality and 4 Saints in Nadine Hubbs's The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity. It's about how a small group of mostly gay (and mostly Jewish) modern composers helped create what we think of as the American sound, thereby making themselves the voices of a society that wasn't particularly sympathetic to gays, Jews, or modernists. Hubbs's style can be a bit heavy with the academic-ese, but she doesn't substitute theory for thought and observation, and the book is well worth the time if you're interested in the subject.

After all that reading and theorizing, let's not forget the music and singing:

Capital Capitals, a Stein/Thomson work which preceded 4 Saints and is a sort of dry-run experiment by Thomson in setting Stein, is available on a couple of recordings. You can find its premiere recording, with Thomson on piano, in one (Modern American Vocal Works) where it's paired with Thomson's Stabat Mater (with Jennie Tourel), along with classic recordings of Copland's Old American Songs (featuring William Warfield with Copland on piano) and Barber's Knoxville Summer of 1915 (with Eleanor Steber) and Hermit Songs (featuring Leontyne Price with Barber on the piano). Capital Capitals is also available on an all-Thomson disc (Mostly About Love, which features Anthony Tommasini on the piano) along with a number of shorter vocal selections, including some others with texts by Stein. It's been a while since I've listened to these recordings but I remember liking them a lot.

The famous final Stein/Thomson collaboration, The Mother of Us All, is available in a recording from Santa Fe, conducted by Raymond Leppard. Again, it's been a while since I've heard this one, and I suppose I should have given it another listen before bringing it up, but right now I'm kind of buried under newly-purchased yet unlistened-to CDs, among other things, and I've always preferred 4 Saints as more poetical anyway, so I didn't. You get to have the joy of discovery, and of forming your own opinion! You can sometimes find copies of the Columbia University premiere floating around, but I think it wasn't ever officially released.

And, of course, there are recordings of 4 Saints itself. Even without the added interest that comes from being conducted by the composer himself and from including many of the original singers, Thomson's own recording is bouncy and tangy and, though I really hate using this word in a context like this, essential. It is also, unfortunately, only about half of the opera, so it's sort of 2 Saints in 1.5 Acts. What's really unfortunate is that this abridgement (insisted upon by a record executive; since CDs can have longer running times they've filled the rest of the CD with Stokowski conducting Thomson's The Plow That Broke the Plains) has often been taken as an alternative performing edition. (To continue with unfortunate things, the upcoming performances are abridged, though I understand that was not Ensemble Parallele's idea.) C'mon, people, the whole thing is only about an hour and a half! There is one very good complete recording, which is the one I first bought on cassette long ago, though my cassettes were replaced, also long ago, by CDs. But it too seems to have fallen out of print, though like some of the CDs mentioned earlier used copies are available at prices ranging from the reasonable to the outrageous, and I keep hoping for another one anyway (possibly Naxos's American Opera Classics series will come through for me), because, as previously noted, I can't get enough of this opera.

The photograph at the top is a detail from The Cathedrals of Broadway in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, painted by Florine Stettheimer, who is best known for her original designs (fanciful, colorful, and staged with cellophane) for the 4 Saints premiere.

4 comments:

sfmike said...

To know to know to love her so.

Heard the sitzprobe today with the orchestra and had a wonderful time. It also turns out that the Chessa "prologue" is a full-fledged major operatic piece using some of Stein's deleted text. I think you're going to enjoy yourself.

pjwv said...

glad to hear it!

"sitzprobe" always sounds to me like some Germanic hygienic treatment involving jets of water in private places, like something the characters at a spa would do in a Thomas Mann novel while they discuss the conflicting political philosophies of our time . . .

sfmike said...

Jawohl, it's one of my favorite words too, along with "dramaturg" which I tend to pronounce with a final "d."

pjwv said...

heh heh

Have I been oblivious (always a possibility) but when did the use of "sitzprobe" and "prima" (for the opening night performance) become widespread? I never heard them used until a few years ago, though I guess they might have been used "in-house." But when did the rest of us move into that house?