Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fun with the First Figaro Finale

[I'm very good at burying the lede, so if you don't feel like reading all this, then just jump down to the video at the bottom, or go straight to my new integrated score/video for this Figaro finale.]

There's probably no musical excerpt I've taught more than the Act II Finale of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. I have been using it regularly in three different classes (music history, a music appreciation type class, and a big general arts lecture class) going back many years, and I've accompanied it in opera scenes performances two different times; so if nothing else, I've gotten to know these twenty minutes pretty well. The fact that the finale is twenty minutes long is a big part of why I choose to teach it. Teaching opera in excerpts is always frustrating because the best operas (and certainly Mozart's operas) are so cumulative in impact. (Yes, that's true of some symphonic works, but I find it more satisfying to teach a movement of a symphony than an just aria or two from an opera.)

Certainly, there are plenty of Mozart arias that are worth using as introduction to Mozart's style, but it's the ensembles and the way in which he builds momentum over a lengthy scene that interest me the most - and there's nothing quite like this finale. (The Act IV finale is extraordinary as well.) Peter Shaffer makes a big deal about it in Amadeus, giving Mozart this wonderful speech extolling the virtues of the opera ensemble:
That's why opera is important, Baron. Because it's realer than any play! A dramatic poet would have to put all those thoughts down one after another to represent this second of time. The composer can put them all down at once - and still make us hear each one of them. Astonishing device - a vocal quartet! [More and More excited] I tell you I want to write a finale lasting half an hour! A quartet becoming a quintet becoming a sextet becoming a septet. On and on, wider and wider - all sounds multiplying and rising together - and then together making a sound entirely new . . . I bet you that's how God hears the world! Millions of sounds ascending at once and mixing in His ear to become an unending music, unimaginable to us!
Peter Hall, the original director of the stage version of Amadeus, has a terrific chapter on Mozart ensembles in his little book, Exposed by the Mask. He echoes Shaffer's Mozart's words here:
Only opera can exploit the paradox that we all have different responses to the same situation, even when we are saying the same words. And for us – the audience – it is a moment of complete chaos made clear. The music gives it form and meaning. (p.87)
Of course, the length of this finale is a challenge from a teaching perspective. On the one hand, it's not hard to have a big success just showing a video, because it's very entertaining theater* - certainly more entertaining than listening to me rattle on and on. On the other hand, it's easy for the students not to think much about the music at all. That doesn't mean the music isn't a big part of what makes the scene entertaining - but there's a lot to be learned by investigating both the finer details and, most importantly, the large-scale structural principles.

Several of my recent blog posts have been about hearing/seeing/experiencing a large work in “big picture” format. I love dfan's comment from one of those posts:
I remember as a little kid when I suddenly realized that I actually could hold the whole structure of the first movement of Beethoven's 5th in my head and follow it from beginning to end, and that it actually made logical semantic sense in the same way that a long sentence does, rather than just being a continuous stream of arbitrary music that happened to end at some point. 
Back in the darker ages, before YouTube had become so useful, I created for students a Quicktime file with the audio for the finale and a series of captions that describe the gist of what’s going on, with prompts to listen for various musical details. The over-riding structural principle for the finale is quite easy to grasp: the way in which the characters are systematically added to the stage, building from duet to septet. “A quartet becoming a quintet becoming a sextet becoming a septet….” In fact, although this finale is often celebrated as twenty minutes of continuous music, each of the five big sections (Duet; Trio; Quartet; Quintet; Septet) could stand alone pretty well as a musical number. It’s noteworthy that Mozart moves the plot along without using the more conventional recitative style for these twenty minutes, but it’s also not exactly true that the plot moves forward continuously. In fact, as Peter Hall suggests, there are moments throughout the finale when the characters turn to the audience (at least figuratively) to confide their inner thoughts, the special point being that we get to perceive multiple sets of thoughts all at once.

Aside from pointing out the obvious about characters being added to the stage, I also like to emphasize the pacing choices Mozart makes. Most important is the way in which he uses an old-fashioned courtly dance style at three crucial junctures in the finale. A lot of the dramatic tension in this finale comes from the back and forth as to who has the upper hand; sometimes it’s the Count, sometimes it’s the Countess, Susanna, or Figaro. Though most of the music is fast-paced, and even frenetic, each of these dance episodes is used to slow things down as we watch the characters sizing each other up. The courtly dance style works well for this, combining a surface formality with barely concealed emotions simmering away beneath. It’s easy to think of dozens of powdered wig period films in which dance scenes are used to the same effect. There's a broader analogy to what Mozart accomplishes with his operas in general, because he generally relies on fairly standard musical styles that can appear merely polished and elegant on the surface, but which can reveal amazing depths of human feeling.

I can still remember a time when I tried to teach this scene from the piano with a fat piano-vocal score that never stayed open; I'd suddenly think about a moment 35 pages down the road and awkwardly flip my way around, then jump over to the podium to see how quickly I could zero in on the right spot in the VHS or DVD. Fun, but crazy and frustrating. I've been using PDF scores in class almost exclusively for years now, but it still can be a challenge to get around efficiently in the score, on the iPod, and on the DVD.

Although I'm pretty good at flipping from window to window on the laptop, I knew there had to be an easier way. Thus began a week-long journey, with some lessons in html, Acrobat, Quicktime, and javascript (!) along the way. I won't go into all the techy detail (although I will admit both that I love fiddling with code, and that I have almost no training in doing so), but I finally managed a solution that works very well in the classroom. I'm still struggling to make this something that can be easily shared online, due to differences in web browsers, screen sizes, and various compatibility issues, but I've decided to post what I've got so far. 

The beauty of this system (which I hope to employ with many other long pieces) is that one can, with one click, jump right to the same place in the score and the embedded video. I have found this to be wonderfully freeing in the lecture setting. I'm sure there must be easier ways to do all this, and I'd love to learn flash or HTML5 to that end, but this is a start.

To try it out, click here. For best results, you'll then want to go fullscreen (use F11 in Windows) and then reload the page (usually F5 or Ctrl-R works) in fullscreen mode to size the score optimally. (Hit F11 again to exit fullscreen mode.) If the commands aren't working, you may need to click in the white space around the movie window so that the commands go to the browser and not the score or movie. Finally, you'll almost certainly need to wait a few minutes before the movie fully loads. You'll probably also need to approve the use of a javascript-embedded file (you may get a warning about potentially dangerous content - I promise I'm not out to get you!) and you'll need Quicktime installed.  (See, it's killing me that there are all these little disclaimers; but once these things are set, it should work beautifully.)

Here's a good 'ol YouTube video that shows you sort of how it should work. You should watch the YouTube video fullscreen, ideally in HD.

The main features:
  • Easy-to-use score. Just click on the left or right margins to turn the pages backwards or forwards. (At this point, the pages don't actually turn as the video plays, but the bookmarks will take you to the right places.)
  • Embedded video. This is a nice Met, all-star production with Fleming, Terfel, Bartoli, et al. It has useful subtitles as well. I just pulled it off of YouTube; there are a variety of little glitches along the way, including one spot where about half a page of music gets skipped. However, I don't want this project to be about getting lost in a great video; the video is there to help the user see the stage context and follow a rough translation. If you want to watch the opera, go watch the opera! (There are worse ways to spend your time...)
  • Page numbers marked in the video. If you look in the bottom right corner of the video window, you'll see a little box that shows the current page number, so if you get lost, you can always pause and flip to the correct page.
  • "What to listen for" captions playing beneath the video. These are just the old captions I made years ago, slightly updated and re-timed for this video.
Again, the main point is that all these items are linked, so it's really easy to jump round and explore the score. If you're interested, the three "dance episodes" to which I referred are:
  1. beginning of the Trio, when Susanna emerges from the closet, to the confusion of the Count and Countess.
  2. Interrogation #1 in the Quartet, when the Count asks Figaro about the mysterious letter he received.
  3. Interrogation #2 in the Quintet, when the Count asks Figaro about the papers left behind by the mystery man who jumped out the window.
[Here's a synopsis of the opera if you need to get up to speed.]

The rest I leave to your own exploration. This obviously won't work so well on small screens or smartphones. I don't know if it's iPad-ready or not. If you're interested in downloadable files that wouldn't have to load over the Internet on your computer, feel free to email me about that.

Of course, there are many music textbooks now that come with guided listening programs, some of them pretty good. But it's gratifying to integrate score, video, subtitles, and captions this way, and to know that I can do it with other scores. And, to be honest, it was just a fun, geeky thing to do. Hope you find it useful. Mozart's the best!

* For the record, the video I like to show in class is the Peter Sellars "Trump Towers" version. In spite of Sellars' reputation for being outrageous, I find that this production takes the characters more seriously than many others and makes the emotions feel genuine and even unsettling. I also don't think anyone will ever sing Figaro more beautifully than Sanford Sylvan.

1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

Another fantastic teaching video! I did Don G. this semester, but this video inspires me to teach Figaro next semester and share this with my students.