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Four Saints in Three Acts

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Author Topic: Four Saints in Three Acts  (Read 378 times)
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« on: December 18, 2016, 03:43:14 pm »

The words Gauk mentions above sound typically 'Steinish' and, with the names of the actual Saints substituted, could easily have fitted into Stein's text and been wholly consonant with the literary (in effect nonsense lyrics), musical and rhythmical style of Four Saints in Three Acts.  However, having quickly perused the libretto from the 1982 Nonesuch Records CD and the libretto from the much superior, recently released, Boston Modern CD (which I downloaded from iTunes with the libretto from, I think, Boston Modern's web page), the words Gauk mentions are nowhere to be found.  Both the aforementioned recordings are, to my knowledge, complete recordings unlike Virgil Thomson's own excellent recording (available to download on Amazon and iTunes) which is of extracts (I have not yet checked the links above to another (?) recording).

I suspect Gauk may be thinking of music that does appear in the Opera (albeit, perhaps, not exactly as remembered) but to differing lyrics.  The word 'difference' appears three times in Act 1 Tableau VII and a couple of times in Vision of the Holy Ghost, Act III.  As there are several places where several Saints' are mentioned in contrast to one another I am unable to identify the section of the Opera Gauk recalls.

One of the difficulties in an 'Opera' like Four Saints in Three Acts - which has no story or plot but is replete with nonsensical lyrics (more like a choral piece with a lot of solos) - is there is not much (if any) of a narrative framework to reference where a memorable part appears.  In anticipation of the Boston Modern release, I spent more time than I would have anticipated one day in June trying to find a particular section of the Opera (based, like Gauk, on the memorability of both the words and the music), from the Nonesuch recording on my iPod. Frankly, it could have fitted in anywhere in the Opera.

In 1999, I think it was, one of the great musical joys of that year for me was discovering Thomson's The Mother Of Us All by purchasing a CD.  This is his second Opera with Stein. I knew the name of the Opera, as I knew the name of  Four Saints in Three Acts, from Opera reference books I had known since my youth.  The Mother Of Us All is hardly conventional by Opera standards and, in effect, has no plot but it is somewhat less nonsensical than its predecessor being based on the life of Susan B. Anthony the US suffregette.  Various US historical figures appear in Stein's text as does Stein herself and Thomson himself.  The Opera has, measured by Thomson and Stein's standards, a greater profundity than Four Saints in Three Acts particularly in the lyrical and moving closing scene.  After hearing this I quickly bought the Nonesuch CD of Four Saints in Three Acts.

Thomson's music for his two Gertude Stein Operas is highly lyrical and is heavily influenced by American hymnody and nursery ryhmes.  Some might say it is simplistic.  Given its eclecticism the music can be criticised as not being original - an accusation that could equally be levied against innumerable composers. In my view, it is an excellent match for Stein's unique texts.  I find his music for these Operas totally memorable and highly enjoyable.  However, if one's taste is limited to Wagner and Verdi and music of great complexity and with an emotional punch, then Thomson is likely to appear superficial.

I am aware of three recordings of Four Saints in Three Acts all mentioned above.  I would recommend the Boston Modern.  I am also aware of three recordings of The Mother Of Us All - the original 1947 premiere (not commercially available), a 1976 Sante Fe CD (my introduction to the Opera) and a 2014 Manhattan School of Music CD.  Although the latter is an amateur performance, in my opinion it is equal in quality to the 1976 recording.  The 2014 recording can be downloaded from Amazon and iTunes.

Thomson composed a third - non-Stein - Opera Lord Byron. For me it is not comparable to the two Stein Operas.  Whilst I could hum many tunes from the Stein Operas I don't recall a single tune from Lord Byron.

Thomson also composed a thoroughly enjoyable Cello Concerto and some fine film scores (Louisiana Story and The Plow That Broke The Plains).

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