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Four Saints in Three Acts


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Gauk
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« on: December 16, 2016, 10:05:34 am »

Since Patmos mentioned in another thread that Virgil Thomson's opera "Four Saints in Three Acts" on a libretto by Gertrude Stein has been recorded, this seems a timely occasion to bring up something that has bugged me for ages.

Many years ago, there was a broadcast of this work on BBC Radio Three, and one particular aria stuck in my head. The text went something like this:

Angeline
Is different from Anne
Is different from Thomasine
Different from Matty
Different from Patty
Different from Thomasine

I may have misrecalled some of the actual names, but that was the structure, and it had a wonderful tune, which I can still hum today.

Then some years back, there was a production of the opera at the Edinburgh Festival, so I went along. I spent the evening waiting for the familiar aria (which I remembered as coming about 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through). But in vain. I could not think of a reason why it should be skipped, having the best tune in the whole opera.

So now I have found the libretto online, and no such text as shown above exists. What can possibly be the explanation? I don't believe I could have dreamed it, it's far too lucid.
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #1 on: December 16, 2016, 12:58:36 pm »


So now I have found the libretto online, and no such text as shown above exists. What can possibly be the explanation? I don't believe I could have dreamed it, it's far too lucid.

I wouldn't exclude the possibility that they were dropped?  The Gertrude Stein texts are somewhat in the same vein as Edith Sitwell's poetry...   words that are primarily presented for the nice sounds they make, rather than for any 'meaning' which accrues from performing those words in a specific order.
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autoharp
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« Reply #2 on: December 16, 2016, 07:56:13 pm »

There's a 1947 recording at http://www.kpfahistory.info/music/4_saints.html 

I don't know how complete it is (I hardly know the work myself).

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=LT4NrEo440AC&pg=PR52&lpg=PR52&dq=four+saints+in+three+acts+1947+rca+victor&source=bl&ots=4sC1BojqDI&sig=qNXy4DCJLQQ0MkLc2ksdiyV2cjU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjKzp-RvvnQAhVGBsAKHUk2AGMQ6AEIJDAD#v=onepage&q=four%20saints%20in%20three%20acts%201947%20rca%20victor&f=false

seems to indicate a history of cuts + more cuts . . .
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Gauk
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« Reply #3 on: December 17, 2016, 06:51:58 pm »

Interesting. I will follow up that old recording. The broadcast I heard would have been in the early 1970s, so either the live performance and the currently-available online libretto were cut since then, or the 1970s performance restored some material that was previously cut.

Still, it is odd to cut a tune so good that I can recall it to this day after one hearing. Maybe Thomson used for something else instead.
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Gauk
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« Reply #4 on: December 18, 2016, 11:15:00 am »

I have now listened with much enjoyment to that recording of the 1947 performance of the opera conducted by the composer and with most of the original cast. It's such a clever piece.

However, "my" aria still was not in it. If it had already been cut in 1947, how did I hear it in the 1970s? I remain baffled. I wonder if it could have been some other setting of Gertrude Stein, but I don't know of any.
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autoharp
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« Reply #5 on: December 18, 2016, 12:01:03 pm »

Thomson did compose another (later) opera with libretto by Gertrude Stein entitled The mother of us all. Given that they were good friends, one supposes that other settings of Stein's words were made. I did check a couple of worklists (he wrote a surprising amount), but they weren't informative enough.
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« Reply #6 on: December 18, 2016, 12:04:54 pm »

It doesn't do a whole lot for me, I fear and I might say that this could be because four into three won't go were it not for the fact that such an observation must have been made many times before and therefore lacks originality...
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patmos.beje
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« Reply #7 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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autoharp
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« Reply #8 on: December 18, 2016, 05:22:30 pm »

I suspect Gauk may be thinking of music that does appear in the Opera (albeit, perhaps, not exactly as remembered) but to differing lyrics. 

Most unlikely. Gauk has just listened to the opera and didn't hear the tune which he recalls pretty vividly.

Gauk - 4 Saints was broadcast on Radio 3 on 1st September 1983: could this have been the broadcast you heard?
http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/schedules/radio3/1983-09-01 - unfortunately I can't seem to get this link to work . . .
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Gauk
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« Reply #9 on: December 19, 2016, 08:58:44 pm »

1 Sept 1983 was a Thursday - I would have been at work and not listening to the radio. But so long ago, who knows?

The tune I remember was quite unmistakable. A slow dance rhythm:

Dum, da-dum
Da duddum, da dum
Da der-dum, de dum da dum.
Duddum da dee dum;
Duddum da DEE dum;
Duddum de da de dum.

If that means anything! Sorry I can't do proper musical notation.

That link leads to this:

13.05
: Four Saints in Three Acts
Opera by Virgil Thomson Libretto by GERTRUDE STEIN
CHORUS. ORCHESTRA OF
OUR time conducted by JOEL THOME : records
Prologue: A narrative of prepare for saints
Act 1: Avila, St Teresa half Indoors and half out of doors
1.45* Interval Reading
1.50* Four Saints in Three Acts
Act 2: Might It be mountains if it were not Barcelona
2.15* Interval Reading
2.20* Four Saints In Three Acts
Act 3: Barcelona, St
Ignatius and one of two literally
Act4:The sisters and saints reassembled and re-enacting why they went away to stay

Contributors
Unknown: Virgil Thomson
Unknown: Gertrude Stein
Conducted By: Joel Thome

That performance would therefore be this one: https://www.discogs.com/Virgil-Thomson-Gertrude-Stein-Orchestra-Of-Our-Time-Joel-Thome-Betty-Allen-Gwendolyn-Bradley-William/release/3935154
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