I have a confession to make.
It took me twenty years of listening to “This Night” by Billy Joel to figure out that Billy Joel didn’t come up with the melody of the chorus.
Guess who did?
Ludwig van Beethoven.
So, if you’re a Billy Joel fan like I am, it turns out that you know more of Beethoven’s music than you thought you did.
As a matter of fact, to paraphrase a recent-ish movie that has nothing to do with this blog post, Beethoven (actually) is all around. His music shows up in movies and television commercials. He’s inspired pop singers and musical theater composers, to say nothing of other composers throughout the realm of classical music. I had that Playmobil Victorian dollhouse when I was a kid, and the little upright piano that came with the living room set played “Für Elise” when you pressed the keys. Playmobil was classy stuff.
I took a class in college called Music and Gypsies (I’ll be back to Beethoven in a second, just bear with me) in which we spent a lot of time identifying the sounds, instruments and musical ideas that classical composers used to indicate the otherness and exoticism associated with the Roma population across the world. Our professor called them signifiers. That word popped into my brain as I started to plan this blog post, because it began to occur to me that Beethoven’s music has become so embedded in the public consciousness that we could also call it a signifier. Filmmakers can count on audiences to recognize the name of Beethoven and to understand, if not consciously, that this name stands in for all of classical music; “Beethoven” means culture, it means high class, sometimes it means wealth.
And sometimes it just means a big shaggy dog.
The reason it worked to name a troublesome movie pooch after Ludwig van Beethoven is because regardless of what we know about what classical music is or is not, we know that Beethoven is the EPITOME of it. Giving the name of a legendary composer of classical music to a loveable, if slobbery, St. Bernard is hilarious, and the whole movie-going public could be in on the joke.
Beethoven’s music has also been used as a signifier of musical talent or interest. Take Peanuts, for example, the beloved comic strip by Charles Schultz.
Beethoven is how Schultz shows us–without saying so in as many words–that Schroeder is a serious musician, despite playing on a toy piano. Beethoven was a genius: everybody knows that. So was Stravinsky, come to think of it, but how many regular readers of Peanuts would have internalized a reference to Stravinsky? No, it had to be Beethoven, or the point would be lost.
When Clark Gesner conceived of putting the Peanuts gang onstage in a musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, he wrote a song entitled simply “Schroeder,” in which the Moonlight Sonata becomes the accompaniment to Lucy’s singing. She suggests that Schroeder could play “April Showers” or “Frère Jacques,” but concedes that “Beethoven’s nice, too.”
The fact that she JUST DOESN’T GET IT speaks to the isolation of the “serious” musician, his single-mindedness, his lofty tastes. Later in the show, in a song written by Andrew Lippa for the revival production, Schroeder begs Lucy not to “commercialize” Beethoven’s birthday, as it’s too important. Beethoven is someone to be REVERED, not merely celebrated.
Similarly, in one of my all-time favorite movies, Born Yesterday (1950), a political journalist (William Holden) takes on the task of educating a gangster’s ditzy blonde girlfriend Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), and in the course of this education, he takes her to a classical music concert in Washington, D.C. She asks him, “What’s the name of this number?” He replies, “Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony, Opus 36.” Of course. Beethoven again, and she pronounces it to be “swell.” But later on, Billie revisits the piece in her hotel room, struggling to understand it and prefer it to the music she usually listens to. “I want to like what’s better to like!”, she cries.
For Billie Dawn, Beethoven stands for something that is highbrow, difficult to understand and enjoy, and of higher intrinsic value than popular music or theater music. And yet the irony is that so many people have had their introduction to Beethoven through something as prosaic as a comic strip, a film or a pop song.
And speaking of Judy Holliday, how about the musical and then movie Bells Are Ringing, music by Jule Styne and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green? Holliday plays Ella Peterson, a woman who works for a telephone answering service and gets way too involved with the concerns of her subscribers. Her friend and employer Sue has a gentleman friend called Sandor, a genial Austrian whose business selling classical music records turns out to be a front for a ring of bookies. Each racetrack is assigned a composer’s name, and gamblers call in to place bets that sound like orders for records. Ella accidentally uncovers the scheme when she takes an order for 100 copies of Beethoven’s 10th symphony ($100 on horse #10 at Belmont Park), and somebody points out that Beethoven only wrote 9 symphonies–something fishy is clearly going on! But invoking the name of Beethoven placed the operation above suspicion for most of the movie.
Apart from wanting everybody to watch my favorite movies, my point is that pop culture has appropriated Ludwig van Beethoven as a symbol of high-brow culture and musical genius, with the result that Beethoven has become more accessible, a sort of gateway drug to classical music. How many other pieces inspire the same kind of awe as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? I’m reminded of that Beethoven flash mob from Barcelona, where a group of musicians gather one at a time to play the famous last movement–and an enormous crowd stands there watching and humming along.
As Schiller put it in the text to “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy), “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” Receive this embrace, you millions! Beethoven isn’t just for those who perform classical music, or music scholars, or frequent concert-goers; if Hollywood, pop music, and the funny pages have taught us anything, it’s that Beethoven is for EVERYONE.
This weekend, VOX 3 Collective presents an extended “open house” afternoon of art song to benefit The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive, an online repository of classical song texts and translations.
As part of this event, members dug deep into their archive of program notes, sharing some details about the art song they will be performing. Here are a few reflections on select pieces.
AMANDA COMPTON, soprano
“This song comes from an album entitled A Love Sublime commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 2005 for Soprano Renée Fleming. The song ‘Love Sublime’ emanated from an earlier work entitled ‘Paris’ on Brad Mehldau’s album Places, and his wife, Fleurine, later wrote the lyrics. Mehldau, better known as a contemporary jazz pianist, uses very dense piano in these songs, and concentrates the settings in the lower register of the piano to exploit the range between the piano and soprano voice. He found the rhythm of the vocal phrases by speaking them: ‘I talked out all the poems before and during the composition, speaking them myself, applying the rhythms of natural speech to the vocal line.'”
IAN HOSACK, baritone
Sju Dikter, Ensamhetens Tankar
“Sju Dikter, Ensamhetens Tankar came to me in the most modern of ways. I was surfing through the endless supply of music on Spotify and stumbled upon the Peter Mattei recording of Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871 – 1927) songs. It was the first time I had heard sung Swedish, the first time I had heard Peter Mattei and my reaction was incredibly base; I had to have this music. My first response was to the musical line, the inflection, and the texture of the pieces so I had no real context to what was being said. However, the music is set so expertly, the meaning within the words shine through so well. Stenhammar is considered by some to be Sweden’s most significant composer, and is possibly the most often performed Swedish composer outside of Sweden. His song repertoire rings a feeling that I get from Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, where lush harmonics are used in very clean manner giving his music a flow through phrasing.”
MEGAN COOK, soprano
Пленившись розой, соловей
“Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov began tinkering with a piano at five years old, imitating his father’s limited playing ability. Though his first compositions took shape at the age of ten, he found music boring and instead preferred reading. Through literature he gained a love of the sea and following family tradition, joined the Russian Imperial Navy at the age of twelve. After moving to St. Petersburg, Rimsky-Korsakov started to study piano with greater discipline. At the age of 18, he was introduced to a group of composers we now identify as the Russian Five. Though his musical training was elementary, he had intuition, natural talent, and could intellectually converse with his new-found colleagues. He learned from colleagues and habitual score study, and gained a greater understanding of composition. He eventually composed numerous works for the stage and concert hall. Along with the rest of the Russian Five, his compositions are now considered prime examples of Russian Nationalistic music.”
MALLORY HARDING, soprano
La regata veneziana
“La Regata Veneziana is a song cycle in the Venetian dialect by Gioachino Rossini. The cycle centers around Anzoleta, whose boyfriend Momolo is competing in a Venice regatta (gondola race). The first song translates “Anzoleta before the regatta” and the song shows the moments before the race- encouraging Momolo to win the race and reminding him she will be watching. “Anzoleta during the regatta,” anxiously watches the race and and culminates in the moment Momolo wins the race. The last song, which will be performed on our program of art songs on Saturday, depicts Anzoleta after the race. Momolo is offered kisses as his prize. He is the winner and that all of Venice is proclaiming it so! The vocal line alternates between a seductive melody with a light waltz accompaniment, to a declamatory style as Anzoleta announces the winner. Rossini intended La Regata Veneziana as entertainment for his guests on musical evenings.”
CATIE HUGGINS, mezzo-soprano
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
“I was first drawn to Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen during the second year of my bachelor’s degree study. I had just officially ‘come out’ as a mezzo soprano and I was on the hunt for a song cycle to perform on my junior recital. Ambitious, n’est-ce pas? I was drawn to the drama of the piece, the depictive and animate accompaniment (even in piano reduction form!), and the full blown German Romantic ethos. I struggled mightily for about six months before I let it go, fully intending to come back to it when I was a more mature singer. So here we are! On my graduate recital, I return to this much beloved and iconic cycle for middle voice. The point of the view of the piece is certainly male, and as a result, the piece has long been the province of baritone singers. However, a quick search of available recordings reveals English mezzo-soprano Janet Baker to be a favorite interpreter of many listeners.”
GABRIEL DI GENNARO, baritone
The Field Marshal
“The Field Marshal” is the last of four songs in Modest Mussorgsky‘s cycle, Songs and Dances of Death. Written in 1877, two years after the first three and four years before Mussorgsky’s death, this song depicts Death as a commander who arrives after a battle to, harshly, count and collect her deceased troops. In the shadow of the deaths of both his mother and good friend, accompanied by his severe alcoholism and solitude, Mussorgsky provided some of the most original and dramatic music written in the 19th century.”
This weekend, VOX 3 Collective presents an extended “open house” afternoon of art song to benefit The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive, an online repository of classical song texts and translations.
In the following article, soprano Meghan Guse shares some background on one of the cycles programmed for this Saturday. The VOX 3 Collective performance of Try Me, Good King will feature 4 sopranos (Kelsey Harris, Jenny Cook, Laura Perkett, and Meghan Guse) portraying the wives of Henry VIII.
Few stories are as well-known as the story of Henry VIII, King of England, and his six wives. Many people are familiar with the dark nursery rhyme used to remember the order of the wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Libby Larsen (b. 1950) was so struck by this nursery rhyme as a child that she spent a great deal of time researching the stories behind that nasty little ditty: who these women were what their circumstances were before they gained favor with the king, and why they met such awful ends. The first five wives were of particular interest to Larsen because they were willfully cast aside or done away with. The sixth wife, Catherine Parr, was lucky enough to outlive Henry, and also served as a peace-making force between the warring factions and families who were left to squabble after Henry’s death.
According to Larsen, she “…chose to focus on the intimate crises of the heart that affected Henry’s first five wives. In a sense, this group of songs is a monodrama of anguish and power.” Larsen also wove lute songs into the accompaniment of the pieces: John Dowland’s “In darkness let me dwell” for Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Howard, the first and fifth wives; Dowland’s “If my complaints” for Anne Boleyn, his second wife; and Thomas Campion’s “I care not for these ladies” for Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife. The affect is not that of pastiche Renaissance flavor; instead, Larsen’s incorporation of these tunes just deepens the historical, complex flavor of these songs. Bell tolls also appear frequently in all five pieces of the cycle.
The wives themselves were all incredibly different women, all from different backgrounds and upbringings. Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of the King and Queen of Spain, and was a virtuous and pious Catholic who was married to Henry for seventeen years. It was only after many failed pregnancies and only one successful pregnancy that resulted in their daughter Mary (otherwise known as Bloody Mary), that Henry decided it was time to move on to a younger wife who might supply him with what he wanted more than anything: a son. Anne Boleyn caught his eye, but she was unwilling to become his mistress, so Henry was forced to break with the Church in Rome in order to obtain a divorce from Katherine and to make Anne his lawful bride. However, Henry was not amused with Anne for long (especially after she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth). When her enemies planted rumors of treason and incest in the King’s ear, he was only too happy to send her off to the executioner.
He was not a bachelor for long, however: young Jane Seymour had caught his eye while he was still married to Anne, and he married her days after Anne’s execution. Jane was able to give him that much longed-for son, but she died days after young James’ birth. Henry actually waited several months while ministers found him a new bride, one of royal birth from the Low Countries. However, Anne of Cleves was not exactly Henry’s choice (and Anne was not too taken with him either, so after a short marriage Henry obtained yet another divorce (Anne was only too happy to oblige). Katherine Howard was the next to catch Henry’s eye, but her youthful passion and earlier romantic affairs soon turned Henry against her, and she was sent to the executioner, just like her cousin Anne Boleyn.
The final words of each wife and the way in which Larsen set them perfectly suited their personalities and situations. Katherine of Aragon was ever loyal, Anne Boleyn was haughty and angry at being betrayed, Jane Seymour was happy to have given him a son, Anne of Cleves was happy to be rid of Henry, and Katherine Howard was young and absolutely terrified of the punishment that awaited her. I have also included portraits of the five wives during their last words. Understanding and sympathizing with these five women during their most trying times is easier when one can connect a face with their words. These were ordinary women who living through unbearable pain and anguish, and Larsen was sure to capture these emotions in her music.
Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade was the Danish composer’s daring attempt to take an 18th century play by the country’s foremost playwright, Ludvig Holberg, and make it resonate with a 20th century audience. Now known principally for his symphonies, Nielsen was also a prolific vocal writer, with nearly 300 songs and hymns to his name. Nielsen wrote only two operas in his life: the dramatic Saul og David (Saul and David) and Maskarade. Saul og David tells the biblical story of King Saul and his relationship with David, who goes from shepherd to slayer of Goliath to being anointed the new king of Israel. It was finished in 1901, right after Nielsen had received a small state pension that would give him more freedom to compose than did his salary alone (he would play second violin in the Royal Danish Orchestra until 1905). The choral pieces seem to have remained in the repertoire, and for that reason, coupled with the opera’s religious subject, it is sometimes seen as more of an oratorio than an opera, and is rarely staged.
Maskarade was a leap in the opposite direction. Nielsen wanted to try something lighter. Thus, he not only chose to write a comedy – he wrote one set in the last 200 years. The characters in Maskarade are not of mythic proportions, forever held at a reverential arm’s length from the viewer, but relatable human beings in situations the audience can sympathize with and understand. Further, the piece was set close to home, in Copenhagen, peppered with folk-like tunes and dances. Little wonder, then, that this celebration of the common man became known as the Danish national opera.
The musical color palette used in the opera’s composition varies widely from character to character. The heroine Leonora sings 19th century Italianate melodies; there are also faux hymn-tunes for the watchman, comic and characterful bits for the supporting tenors Arv and Leonard, weighty sections with pompous brass accompaniment for Jeronimus, and anyone’s guess for the musical chameleon Henrik. It has been said Nielsen was reacting against the Romantic musical tradition, yet he chose to set his opera in the past. He did this not from a fondness for times gone by, but because of a feeling of kinship with the Enlightenment.
He felt the Enlightenment was “representative of modernity” in a way the heavily nostalgic Romantic movement was not. Frustrated by turn-of-the-century conservative Danish society, he echoes Holberg in his use of the character Henrik, the outspoken valet, to voice his impatience with their entrenched structures and conventions. Maskarade reaffirms the ideal of social equality, and is able to take it one step further than the play due to the addition of Nielsen’s music.
Because of Holberg’s mixing of social classes throughout his play, Nielsen had the groundwork laid to mix his love of folk music with a more formal style of composition. By putting these musical styles on an equal footing, he was reinforcing the modern yet classical statement that all men (and perhaps styles of music) are created equal. Maskarade’s action and music work together to reveal the true message of the masquerade.
Recently, the leading men of our opera, Maskarade, took some time out of their busy, busy lives to answer a few questions for us. Nicholas Pulikowski (Leander) is a native of Chicagoland and a graduate of Northwestern University and Indiana University-Bloomington is no stranger to playing the tenor in love. Michael Orlinsky (Henrik) has developed a real love for the Danish language as a result of this opera, and Zachary Elmassian (Jeronimus), a recent Master’s graduate from Northwestern University shares a few insights into his character. Come see VOX 3’s Chicago premiere of Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade, opening Saturday, January 18th at the Vittum Theater in Chicago!
So when I’ve described this project to my friends and co-workers, they’re stunned by the fact that we’re singing in Danish! What attracted you to this project? How has it been learning the Danish?
Michael Orlinsky (MO): I was attracted to this project because I love to perform, essentially. The fact that it was in Danish was a neat aspect of it, but certainly not the defining factor. Learning the Danish was tough to figure out, but once I figured it out I had a fairly easy time learning it. Nielsen is a genius, and he really teaches the singer the different aspects of Danish through the way he sets the words. When I opened my mind to that aspect of it, it made much sense. It’s actually very similar to English in the way it’s pronounced. Upon studying the Danish language I discovered that English survived as a language in Denmark for quite some time. It lingered as the language of the people while the church maintained the Latin language, and the nobles maintained French thanks to William the Conqueror. Eventually, the language of the people grew in popularity thanks to tales such as Beowulf or Canterbury Tales. After much borrowing from the other languages that were spoken in the area English somewhat codified. However, a lot of the borrowing comes from the Danish language. Within this opera there are examples of this borrowing even in Danish. There are several moments in which the characters find it useful to speak in French, German, or Latin.
Zachary Elmassian (ZE): For me, singing in an entirely unfamiliar language attracted my interest in the project. After listening to a recording, I was hooked. It’s great music with a hilarious libretto. I also had been wanting to work with VOX 3 for sometime as my schedule prevented me from taking part in concerts given over the summer and fall.
Nicholas Pulikowski (NP): I was stunned by the Danish myself and it has not been easy, particularly working to create the characteristic swallowed vowel and throaty consonant sounds of the language while singing with healthy vocal technique. Danish sounded to me at first like a gargling string of nonsense characterized most by the uvular R which at times sounds french, other times German, and most often sounds like a 3-year-old American ready for speech pathology. Perhaps the most bizarre sound produced by the Danes is their soft D (irregularly found anywhere and everywhere) which can only be described as a gag from the sides of the back of the tongue – truly impossible to sing through for this American.
Now, I’ve heard this discussed among the cast throughout the rehearsal process- what do you think Danish sounds like?
ZE: I think Danish sounds like many things. Throwing up sometimes happen to be one of the sensations. Maybe gargling with mouthwash too. I don’t mind singing in it. The vowels become a little muddled at times, but it actually is a very legato language; just happens to sound in the back of one’s throat all the time.
MO: I have a Swedish friend who I asked for his input on the Danish Language early on in the process. He told me it would be useless because, to him, “Danish sounds like Swedish with Mashed potatoes in your mouth”. Perhaps that can be an offensive comment, but I find it to be a beautiful language. It is beautiful in it’s interesting aspects. It can be lyrical, but it is generally short and poignant. At times we had a hard time figuring out which vowel to sing on for long notes because of the structure of the words within the music. The “r” is very far back in the throat. Most singers don’t appreciate that. I didn’t really have a problem with it. I appreciate the language very much.
Tell us a bit about your character in the opera? What’s your favorite scene or moment in the opera?
MO: Oh.. Henrik. As Henrik, I am the life of the party. Henrik is just trying to find the glimmer of joy within an otherwise damp and dreary world. I see a spark within the young man who I care for to foster equality. As a noble man, Leander has the capabilities of changing the world. Hopefully with my influence he can do so. All of that serious stuff aside.. I like my drink, I like women. I might have the found the right woman at the Maskarade that can keep me from the others. We shall see.. Beyond that, I’m somewhat long-winded.. I’m a performer. I have strong opinions and given my station in life as a servant.. that gets me in to trouble often. It’s worth it.
NP: Leander is the love-struck son of a wealthy Danish businessman at the turn of the 17th century. He and his best friend/servant, Henrik, are totally taken by the newest social phenomenon in town – the Maskarade. Behind their mask, anyone can be anything at these parties and Leander is sure that the equality and freedom he finds there is how the new world of the dawning 18th century is meant to be lived. Act II, Scene 8 is the arranged masked meeting between Leander and Leonora, the object of his undying love from the night before at the Maskarade, before going into the party for their second night of fun and festivities. Leander is simultaneously thrilled to see Leonora again and absolutely clueless as to what to do with her. Nielsen’s music here between the lovers is first excited, then polite followed by tentative, encouraging, and finally sweeping – the wave is so much fun to ride!
ZE: Jeronimus is part of the old vanguard, the “ancien regime” if you will. He is the personification of the old ways, of tradition. He dislikes change and does not see it as progress. He holds his values to be law and becomes very unsettled when the masquerade begins to threaten the old way of unequal stations in life. If I had to pick a favorite scene (I have many, especially those comic ones with Jeronimus and Arv), it would be Jeronimus’s aria scene. He is alone onstage and one really gets the sense of where he’s coming from. It’s where his character is dissected and analyzed. The music is gorgeous, and paints him to be a real, three-dimensional character. We empathize with him after the scene’s conclusion as we understand how important the old way of life is to him and what a threat the masquerade has become. It’s a chance for us to see him at his most vulnerable and, consequently, his most interesting.
Some of you have worked with VOX 3 previously- what do you enjoy most about the company? Zach, this is your first time working with us- what are your impressions?
MO: I love this company because the people who organize it are open to everyone, and able to utilize people well. They are able to provide many opportunities, and respect their musicians very much. Beyond that, the quality of performance is generally high.
NP: Working with VOX 3 is and has always been uniquely great, I think due mostly to the fact that everyone collectively involved in these productions humbly offers themselves as performer, director, coach, designer, and co-worker – and everyone has so much to give!
VOX 3 Collective’s upcoming Danish opera Maskarade by composer Carl Nielsen may have been written in the early 20th century, but its origins lie in a 1724 play written by the most popular Danish writer of the 18th century, Ludvig Holberg.
Ludvig Holberg was a teacher, philosopher, and playwright (among other things). He wrote comedies for the first public theatre in Denmark while also teaching at the University of Copenhagen. Holberg was in a unique position in the world of playwrights, as King Frederick IV loved his plays and allowed them to be shown uncensored. Having the favor of the king gave Holberg a certain license when critiquing society — rather than having to hide his meaning, he was permitted to baldly state his opinions.
His play Mascarade was written at a time when the Enlightenment was in its relatively early stages. Voltaire and Rousseau’s ideas had not yet been popularized (or perhaps even theorized, as Rousseau was a twelve-year-old boy when Mascarade premiered), and yet Holberg felt confident enough in his Enlightenment notions to have one of his play’s characters say “Masquerades…show the people the natural equality that was theirs in the beginning…as long as the masquerade lasts, the servant is as good as his master.”
Whether this talk of equality between peoples was somehow meant for the head of a monarchical system of government (which seems dubious) or for the people of Denmark is unclear, but the mere fact of it occurring in 1724 is remarkable. For those familiar with Amadeus, the controversy surrounding Mozart’s setting of Nozze di Figaro — controversial due to its revolutionary statements regarding class — took place in 1786, more than 60 years after Holberg’s play.
In addition to early revolutionary statements, Mascarade was written to combat ecclesiastical and civic authorities who believed masquerades should be banned, as they encouraged vice, partially (so they believed) as a result of their inherent and aforementioned social leveling. Because Mascarade was shown at a public theatre and Holberg himself was so popular, it helped sway the will of the people and keep masquerades from being banned until the death of Frederick IV in 1730 and the installation of his son, the extremely not-fun Christian VI, who banned all theatre until his death in 1746.
Remember, at this time, the Scandinavian languages were still changing rapidly. The writing and speaking of Danish as a language altered significantly over the century and a half period between Holberg’s play Mascarade and Nielsen’s opera Maskarade. Spelling would continue to evolve in this time, with “aa” becoming “å,” and other fun changes resulting in profits for dictionary publishers.
Holberg continued the tradition of playwrights like Molière, choosing comedy as the medium for his ideas about society. He stated that Molière, “with his rational thinking, has done more to better the world with his comedies than all the serious prattlings of all the world’s old philosophers.” The belief was that if an audience were relaxed and entertained, they would be more open to seeing their own errors and prejudices reflected in the characters on stage, and hopefully then correct them in their own lives.
A large part of Holberg’s popularity also lay in his choosing to write his plays in the vernacular. Most playwrights of the time would write in verse if they were writing in Danish, but Holberg opted to write in the language of the people, something that invariably causes contemporary critics to sneer, but the overall public to love it. Whoever first does this effectively in their own country seems to be then heralded as the founder of that country’s literature (Shakespeare, Dante, and Pushkin being some examples).
Carl Nielsen preserved as much of the original play as he could by hiring Holberg scholar Vilhelm Andersen to write the libretto. The spirit of the play is carried on in the opera, as Nielsen places folk songs on an equal level with a more formal compositional style, making even the music a part of the masquerade and the Enlightenment ideals it fosters.
Masquerades were initially associated with Carnival, the period of time just before Lent that has historically been a time of ritualized social topsy-turvydom. Laymen would dress as religious officials and mock the Church — the institution that at all other times of the year had unimpeachable power over the people. Roles were reversed and a general laxity regarding commonly accepted values and social structures was the norm.
When the Renaissance swept across Europe and society became in many ways more formalized, the masquerade ball became an increasingly popular fixture. They were most famously associated with Venice and the Venetian Carnival, eventually attaining an immense popularity throughout the Continent that lasted for decades. The masquerade ball, as opposed to the initial masquerade, was not restricted to Carnival time, thus allowing the populace greater freedom to go ‘outside the norm’ of their daily lives.
Masquerade balls provided the social freedom and equality that the newly emerging individualist of the Renaissance wished for through the virtue of its participants being, at least in theory, anonymous. Through the relaxing of social rules that takes place when entertainment is involved, along with the ability to cast off all of what life has attached to you regarding social status, wealth, and connections, these dances provided an almost unique opportunity for those living through the Renaissance and Enlightenment to briefly cast off what life had given them and become, in a sense, Rousseau’s “natural man.” Masquerade balls, through their social leveling, can be seen as a furtive step towards the revolutionary ideals that would characterize the late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries.
As with most popular forms of entertainment, the masquerade ball came to be seen by the more prudish parts of society as something that encouraged dangerous behaviors, especially among the younger generation. Without distinct markers like dress, how were the ‘better’ citizens to be distinguished from their inferiors? How could you know whom to snub? “[H]ow from another woman/Do you [a] strumpet masqu’d distinguish?” English author Henry Fielding asks reprovingly in his 1720s poem ‘The Masquerade.’
Several countries, including the all-important-for-our-story Denmark, banned masquerades due to the danger they seemed to pose to society. Venice, which led the world in masquerade, found that criminal activity went up dramatically when its citizens were allowed to hide their identities, and banned the wearing of masks outside Carnival and at formal banquets. Ludvig Holberg, Mascarade’s original author, wrote the play in part as a response to Denmark’s ban on masquerade balls, which they stated only encouraged vice and degenerate behavior. Denmark had just come out of the Great Northern War, a 21-year conflict with Sweden, and was mostly likely looking to stabilize itself. Banning masquerade balls was a gesture towards that, but one not appreciated by Holberg. Fortunately the playwright had the favor of the king, Frederick IV, and therefore a certain amount of license in his subject matter.
The masquerade ball provided a much needed respite from social rules and order and gave people a chance to relax their inhibitions, break off from their set place in the rigid class system of the time, and briefly live a different sort of life —one that would foreshadow the 18th century’s “all men are created equal” ideology. One could say the masquerade ball was an organic and understated outgrowth of those rising sentiments.
Holberg’s original Danish play Mascarade, upon which Nielsen’s opera was based, places the original squarely in the height of popularity for masquerades. What can look like a lighthearted romp should also be seen in the context of burgeoning social upheaval. It is about two people who fall in love at a dance, but the experience becomes all the richer when one realizes how that was able to take place. The spirit of revolution underscores this fun and delightful opera.