Eduard Hanslick on Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Vienna’s Court Opera, conducted by Gustav Mahler
Exactly one year ago, I translated the very first mention of Gustav Mahler by the music journalist Julius Korngold in the Habsburg “paper of record”, die Neue Freie Presse. It was from 1901 and was a general article examining the meaning of “Modernism” and its application to music. After I posted it on this blog, an offer from Routledge followed for an entire book on Mahler as viewed through the lens of the Neue freie Presse. I finished my second book for Yale University Press on the music of exile and started the process of translating the reviews about a month ago. These included articles and more general Feuilletons or essays on Mahler. They began with Eduard Hanslick reviewing Mahler’s completion of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Die drei Pintos – the Three Pintos, a performance that took place in 1889, eight years before Mahler took the position as Music Director at Vienna’s Court Opera (as the State Opera was then known). Hanslick even gets Mahler’s name wrong and refers to him as “August Mahler”. I haven’t decided on the cut-off date, but I suspect it will be around 1936 or 1937. In 1934, the Austro-Fascist government of Engelbert Dollfuß took over the paper. Though the culture section remained largely untouched, they took the opportunity to retire Julius Korngold, or he possibly took the decision to retire himself. In spite of the loss of Julius Korngold and his ability to discuss works as if standing in front of a large lecture hall, there were still any number of excellent writers available, including reviews of Das Lied von der Erde in New York in 1937 and a Mahler Cycle conducted by Hermann Scherchen in Vienna in the same year.
It is one thing to skim read one of these extraordinarily lengthy Feuilltons, and quite another to translate them. It requires untangling complex syntax that would be unacceptable in English. I discovered words that were derived from the names of popular authors turned into adjectives – authors popular at the time, but largely forgotten today. And, there was the challenge of trying to understand what was meant by words that have clearly changed their meaning over the last century – or at least, shifted their centre of gravity with one now infrequent meaning being the principal meaning a hundred years ago. On the other hand, there have been countless times I have translated a word or concept and discovered it moving comfortably into one of today’s buzzwords. More to the point, to translate complex cultural commentary from a century ago means trying to enter the headspace of the writer and understand exactly the point being made. It’s like being in a time machine, catapulted back a century.
Reading and translating the extraordinary degree of scholarship assumed by writers and readers, it might be tempting to think times were definitely better in those days. But the opera then was not the opera today. It was a more popular medium of entertainment, and until the dominance of cinema, the most extravagant theatrical experience to be had. It would not be directly comparable with Broadway or London’s West End. There were parallel venues for light musical theatre in most cities, but opera was certainly a more popular genre with a wider social catchment than it is today. It was invariably performed in the vernacular with German speaking singers specialising in French and Italian repertoire. This alone meant there were many styles of singing in German. Korngold, Zemlinsky, Schreker and indeed Strauss probably had more Italianate German singers in mind rather than the huge great Wagnerian singers we tend to hear in these roles today. Scholarship was extraordinary at the time presuming a knowledge of world literature, and at least a literate fluency in French, English, Italian, Latin and Greek.
Beyond that, there were the writing styles of the different individuals. Hanslick is more light-hearted and enjoys being provocative and amusing. Julius Korngold is serious and offers deconstructions of Mahler’s symphonies one might expect in a textbook rather than a newspaper’s arts’ page. He rarely attempted to amuse, and unlike Hanslick, if he disapproved of a work, he tended to give us theoretical chapter and verse. As nearly always the case with these highly educated individuals, their intellectual assessments of what they considered negative characteristics inevitably reflected the very individuality of composers that guaranteed their place in the classical canon. One immediate example that demonstrates what I mean is Korngold’s dismissive reception of Debussy as being diffuse, impressionistic, tending towards whole tone sequences and so on. In other words, Korngold critically assesses the very qualities that made Debussy the exceptional composer of his time and place. He did the same with Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg (with whom he later became quite friendly in Los Angeles) and Franz Schreker, while Hanslick does the same with Tchaikovsky, and (assuming you continue reading), with Puccini.
I have taken the decision to take one of the articles, as it is less about Mahler (though obviously he features) and more about how music was changing in the early twentieth century. It is Eduard Hanslick’s review of La Bohème from 1903. By the time Mahler decided to present the work at Vienna’s Court Opera, it was all of seven years old, so was considered new and contemporary. The shifts taking place in German music had largely grown out of Liszt’s “New German School” in which literary subjects were seen as the determinants of musical form. This idea unleashed an international craze of transliterating stories and poems from words into music. It wasn’t just Richard Strauss writing his Symphonic Tone-Poems, there was Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. At the same time, emerging from the influence of Liszt’s son-in-law Richard Wagner, was an increasing departure from operas with set numbers with the trend moving towards continuous music, dovetailing declamatory passages with arias, duets and other ensembles.
The other “modernist” trend was representing life as lived by members of the public rather than reaching back into mythology, ancient history or the Renaissance for material. It could be argued that Verdi’s La Traviata started something along these lines, though the characters of the opera remain decidedly bourgeois. With later developments such as Gustav Charpentier’s opera Louise and Leoncavallo’s opera Zàzà from 1900,not to mention the two great monuments of Italian Verismo, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci from 1892 and Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana from 1890,the characters we sympathise with are poor, working people from the countryside or cities. The raising of proletarian consciousness was something new, and to many, Hanslick included, it was offensive.
Hanslick’s review of La Bohème offers in a single feuilleton a case study of Modernism before departures from tonality became its principal hallmark. My translation for this blog is slightly different, and lacking additional commentary regarding individuals mentioned in the article. I provided this information for Routledge. Nevertheless, it makes for fascinating reading even in this slightly denuded form. At the end, I’ve enclosed a lecture given by conductor John Mauceri from 2001 in Pittburgh on La Bohème. I offer this because he and Hanslick hit on the same elements of the work – now unquestionably the world’s most popular opera – yet Mauceri sees these elements from the perspective of the twenty-first century while Hanslick can only grasp their significance from the vantage point of the nineteenth-century. The date of Hanslick’s review is 27 November, 1903:
When Opera Director Gustav Mahler returned from his trip in Italy, he was urgently asked which of the two Bohème operas was best, the one by Leoncavallo or the one by Puccini. Mahler’s answer was to quote Heine: mich will’s bedünken, daß sie alle beide Stinken – or in English. “I consider them both to stink”. So Mahler has more than a fine ear; he also has a fine nose. Still, Mahler was in any case obliged to perform the Leoncavallo Bohème as a commitment made by his predecessor Wilhelm Jahn. Before that, we had the opportunity of hearing the Puccini version at the Theater an der Wien. with Franz Naval and Frances Saville in the principal roles. Nevertheless, these rival Bohèmes only blossomed during an extremely short spring. The public grew tired of both quite soon. In spite of this, the Puccini version has appeared yet again at Vienna’s Court Opera. Of the two stinking twins, the one by Puccini smells less awful. The Puccini Bohème, if locked in a larder, one could at least open a window or two and let in a whiff of pure melody, whereas with the Leoncavallo Bohème locked in a larder, it merely keeps its smells to itself. […]. That Gustav Mahler has little time for this and similar works is common knowledge. Two hearts are beating in his breast. The outward looking symphonic composer with his higher-ideals remains “a distinguished foreigner” to most of the Viennese. The second heart beating in his breast is that of the theatre director, aspiring to lower ideals, while beating all the harder in order to meet the demands of his subscribers always in need of the latest thing, or even something newer, if possible.
As a result, Mahler whose modernist sympathies have not progressed beyond the Nibelungen, goes for the version that has already established itself in other opera houses. It was the same idea behind bringing Louise to us from Paris, whose dismal family affairs were soon played out. He also gave us the much-loved ballet from Prague Der faule Hans, a work that apart from the wonderful staging was truly foul. And now, he appeases us with Puccini’s Bohème, which we have already had the pleasure of meeting. Our only possible response is to mutter faute de mieux. Have French and Italian composers come to a total standstill, or simply boarded the wrong train? Both nations appear to have given up on their inborn naturalness and charm, while adopting an unappealing Wagnerian vernacular. And as for what is happening in Germany? One hears from one or the other provincial cities of this or that “marvellously successful” new opera, inevitably the work of a local composer or Kapellmeister. The victory wreaths they are awarded remain green and fresh for longer, than the run of their operas. As a result, Maestro Mahler can only choose from a wealth of mediocrity whatever suggests a chance of success. His hand reaches for things his nose tells him to avoid. It is all the more worthy that he takes on these works with integrity, studying assiduously and preparing them down to the tiniest detail. Once he decides to take on a novelty, he offers the same fatherly attention to the least important spear carrier as to the greatest of Walküres.
Hanslick goes on to explain the plot and mentions that Puccini has used different scenes than the ones set by Leoncavallo. As the opera is performed in German, the names of the protagonists are changed accordingly: Rudolf, Mimi, Musette, Marcell, Schaunard and Collin. Monsieur Benoît is now Herr Bernard. He makes few statements about the music or the opera in this plot summary, but ends with Mimi’s death. From here, he lets us know what her really thinks:
It is a rather long and gruesome death, drawn out and expressed with all manner of lamentation and pathos. We are also confronted with naked poverty and the utter helplessness of these artistic proletarians as they stand around Mimi’s deathbed. That Mimi’s death should follow immediately after the quadrille is typical of the original text, which works by putting strong contrasting scenes next to one another. If one scene slams into our face with brutal joviality, the next one bores into our soul with the horror of death, burrowing slowly into our hearts. If the public genuinely enjoys and feels enriched by operas like these that is very good news for Mr Opera Director.
The music plays a rather secondary role in this opera, despite having moments when it imposes itself with passion along with a good deal of noise. If one reads the first four or five pages of the densely printed textbook prior to attending a performance, one may be forgiven for wondering if it is an opera libretto or a script to a comedy. This never-ending, inane chatter of dialogue that discusses only superficialities is supposed to provide a base for music? It is obvious that music is not given an equal and independently artistic role; rather it is simply used for underlay for day-to-day conversation. It is the penultimate step in music’s downward trend with the next and final step bringing us to undisguised melodrama. Indeed, in Bohème, we sense the protagonists speaking with the music providing characteristic sounds to accompany the words. In addition, particularly during quicker passages, the verbiage simply goes by incomprehensibly. It is therefore appropriate, in light of all of this chitter-chatter covering endless pages of the score, to reach for a word applied in the science of acoustics and speak of “dead points”. And under such circumstances, these dead points really do exist, and are inevitable. These dead points allow the occasional release of a brief melodic idea. In the middle of sprechgesang, there suddenly emerges a burst of musical sound and singing.
But how long does it last? Such musical oases, with concentrated emotions that allow melody to soar are at their purest and occur most frequently in the role of Mimi. Otherwise, the melodic inventiveness is sparse. Richer pickings are to be found in the orchestral score with wonderful instrumental details carried out with ingenious sensitivity and cleverness. This is the sort of musical free-for-all, offering a nervous edginess that is part and parcel of the “New School”, though this time, the “New Italian School”. What is totally missing in this Puccini version is the very thing that makes the Murger’s original so appealing: its humour. The scenes in the attic in both the first and last acts are dry, tortured and long-winded, despite the composer’s best efforts at being comic. The same may be said of Act 2 in which the composer simply piles up the various noises and effects of a Parisian street without actually achieving an effect on its own. Everything is reduced to its tiniest constituent elements. It misses the power that allows our ability to view across the action and comprehend what is happening. Without this, the music remains static unable to achieve an effect. The music in front of the café Momus, despite the marching band, is hardly more than bells accompanied by wood and straw harmonicas along with toy instruments that are not joyous but loud and clangourous. There is a sung waltz (even a slow one) by Musette in E major, which could never be taken seriously in, of all places, Vienna. If Act 2 is trivial and boring, Act 3 is sentimental and boring.
The first scene [of Act 3] takes place at the customs station at the city borders, with market people coming and going. It foregoes any possible relevance with what follows. Instinctively one recalls the analogous scene in Cherubini’s, Les deux journées – ou le porteur d’eau, which set the scene for the entire dramatic development. A quartet follows from a scene of some tenderness, but lots of crying and Mimi and Rudolf in a vulgar unisono conclusion. The composer must have enjoyed the process of combining into a single item the sentimental parting of Mimi and Rudolf with an argument between Musette and Marcell. Should one look for a comparison in order to understand how meagre Puccini’s musical grasp is, one need only compare this quartet with the one at the end of Verdi’s Rigoletto. How artfully Verdi manages to contrast the two jesting voices with the two painful ones. How wonderfully shaped and euphonious he manages to create out of these contrasts a single piece of music! With Puccini, the two halves of the quartet separate themselves like oil and water. One could remove any of them without it making much different to the others.
How quickly the youthful Mascagni School has taken over. This is particularly the case with its bizarre rhythmic and harmonic eccentricities, its unnatural melodies and general capriciousness. Puccini’s Bohème is dominated by Mascagni’s changes of meter, the illogical modulations or, to be more accurate, just diving into the most distant possible key along with a childish abundance of performing nuances. The resultant impression is torn and disintegrated to such an extent that we seem to be left with lots of twitching tiny details. But truly, no composer is capable of replacing long musical lines with abrupt sighs and sobs. The newest effect to be unleashed by the latest Mascagni-ites is lots of clangourous chords such as heard in the overture of Amico Fritz, in which dissonance is simply allowed to pound away at the listener. And Puccini’s final joke in Mascagni abominations can be heard in countless scenes of parallel fifth marching upwards and downwards of quite indescribable ugliness, and preferably marked “marcantisssimo” and played by the trumpets! One may be excused in asking what the composer hopes to achieve with such hideousness.
For an example of the open fifths that so offended Hanslick, I urge you to listen to John Mauceri’s lecture, which highlights many of the same points made by Hanslick, but seen from the perspective of several generations later with audiences and musicians used to operas by Strauss, Zemlinsky, Schreker and countless verismo operas by Puccini and others.
The text does not offer the slightest motivation, since this obstacle course of fifths takes place while the friends are having a conversation in their attic hovel, or during the crowd scene outside of Café Momus, or even the customs officials at the city limits. We must not assume that this torturous orgy of ugliness is merely to be understood as an amusing protest against the Tonsatz doctrines maintained by past master composers; no, it is nothing short of a massive musical insult. It is the unmotivated use of ugliness merely because it is ugly. It is like the appearance of banal conversations, now common in operas, in the interest of naked realism. With these Bohèmes our composers have merely shown us the inevitable outcome of prosaic licentiousness in today’s world. It offers heroes in gaudy checked trousers, flashy cravats with cockily worn felt hats and a cigar stub in their mouths and their girlfriends wearing cheap scarves and grubby shawls. All of this is new in today’s opera. It constitutes a break with the romantically portrayed traditions of past operas. This explains the breathless competition between two now established young composers in exploiting this spicy audience bait! Criticism is powerless against such trends. It will last for a time, and will probably even expand. The more prosaic and filthy, the better. Today’s music is excellently prepared for this sort of thing.
Hanslick ends with a list of cast members, whom he praises and he offers lavish praise on Gustav Mahler and the orchestra.
John Mauceri who has conducted the opera on countless occasions gave a lecture in Pittsuburgh in 2001 when he was Pittsburgh Opera’s Music Director. The lecture is informative and for anyone who has worked their way through the Hanslick review, startling in his highlighing many of the same characteristics of this opera – characteristics that have made it the world’s favourite opera today, but so terribly unsettled Hanslick in 1903.