Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mahler, Mozart and Ms Jenkins

It started with the announcement that the Symphony Orchestra of India would perform a concert of the German romantics: Wagner, Richard Strauss and Mahler. Now I can live without this particular Strauss, and I don't know enough about Wagner, but Mahler's Fifth Symphony - which was on the programme - has long been one of my favourite orchestral pieces. It opens with a solo trumpet going:

pa pa pa pa... pa pa pa pa... pa pa pa paaaaaaa...

and after a few rounds of that, the gigantic orchestra announces its presence with:

blam, bang, kaBOOM! kerBLOOIE!! dhiSHOOM!!!

All in all, an excellent piece with which to show off your new music system, as I found when I joined TIFR a mere 28 years ago. I can remember parties held at my place exclusively to listen to this piece, and no, I will not reveal what substances were consumed at those parties. Just remember it was the 1980's.

So a week ago an orchestra that despite its name featured a surprising number of blonde and East Asian members, performed this explosive piece at the J.J. Bhabha Auditorium in Bombay. I sat through it with mouth open and heart pounding (no, just cold coffee). The third movement, the Scherzo, moves away from the explosive stuff and features an airy waltz that, every now and then, appears to trip over itself. It has moments that beautifully evoke the German countryside, possibly because Mahler wrote it while living in this hut. This is followed by the Adagietto, an incredibly sad and moving piece that's often performed on its own and became even more famous after it featured in Visconti's film Death in Venice as an accompaniment to the death of Dirk Bogarde. A relatively cheerful Rondo concludes the symphony. This also concluded the evening at the J.J. Bhabha, upon which I wandered out in a slight daze going pa pa pa paaaaaaa, and (only after I was safely in my car) kaBOOM!!

These encounters always plant something in one's mind, so a few days later I found myself revisiting Mozart's fairy-tale opera Die Zauberflöte or The Magic Flute. I've owned a copy for decades and never quite sat through the whole thing, but after the Mahler experience I found it relatively light and enjoyable and have been listening to it for a whole week. There was one surreal moment last weekend when I drove past a few thousand revellers dancing in the streets and carrying their Ganpatis for immersion, with my windows firmly closed and the car stereo going "Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe!" I felt irrationally guilty about this, as though it was blasphemy to be listening to opera while the elephant god was on his final journey of the year.

One of the most fun pieces in the Magic Flute is the aria known as Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen ("hell's vengeance boils in my heart") where the wicked Queen of the Night exhorts her daughter to assassinate her rival Sarrastro. The soprano performing this has to fairly scream her lungs out (maybe I shouldn't have described the opera as "relatively light and enjoyable"!). Mozart wrote this part to be extremely difficult, apparently his sister-in-law was the first to ever perform it and she was an outstanding singer.

While reading about this aria, I stumbled upon the fascinating case of Ms Jenkins and thought my readers would like to know about her. My curiosity was stirred by this casual comment in Wikipedia: "The aria was also a favorite of the famously incompetent singer Florence Foster Jenkins." Famously incompetent? I had to know more! And Wikipedia did not disappoint. Her Wiki page describes her as "an American amateur operatic soprano who was known, and ridiculed, for her lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, aberrant pronunciation of libretti, and overall poor singing ability." It goes on to inform us that "From her recordings it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch and rhythm, and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign language songs, is also noteworthy. Nonetheless, she became popular for the amusement she provided."

Whoever wrote this Wikipedia entry apparently managed to control his or her laughter long enough to continue in this vein: "Despite her patent lack of ability, Jenkins apparently was firmly convinced of her greatness." We learn that "She was aware of her critics, but never let them stand in her way". And she came up with a memorable quote too: "People may say I can't sing," she said, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

After staring at the Wiki page for a long time and debating if it was wise, I finally summoned up the courage to click on the audio link - and got to hear the famously incompetent lady attempting Der Hölle Rache. It's only 23 seconds long, but it's ghastly beyond words and has made me a lifelong fan of Florence Foster Jenkins.


Unknown said...

What a wonderful find! Thank you!

And for those who want more than the brief Wikipedia excerpt of this voice, do try the incomparable Florence giving her all to Mozart:

The Queen of the Night

Rahul Siddharthan said...

For a bit of fun, try Uri Caine's "Urlicht", a CD devoted to Mahler. Caine is a jazz pianist who plays straightforward jazz, mainly in a trio, but he has a parallel career arranging classical music in strange ways -- Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler etc. The Bach is just bizarre and the Wagner is a straightforward transcription to chamber instruments, but the Mahler really works for me. And it opens with that pa-pa-pa-paaaa that you mention.

Also, any discussion of Mahler must include Tom Lehrer's "Alma". (The first one she married was Mahler, whose buddies all knew him as Gustav; and each time he saw her he'd hahler, "Ach, that is the fraulein I mustav." The marriage, however, was murder, he'd scream to the heavens above: "I'm writing Das Lied von der Erde, and she only wants to make love!"

Vikram said...

To take Der Holle Rache in really odd directions, try listening to some of the male soprano versions of it. Both the boy sopranos, who can get a beautiful sound though one that, to me, is sort weightless and slightly empty. And then guys like Michael Maniaci and Radu Marian who, for various reasons, have natural voices, not falsettos, like this. I think both of them have sung this and it is really strange.

sukratu said... not worry for the elephant God would prefer opera, I am absolutely sure, given whatever that takes place in His own name in those apocalyptic 10 days!

vbalki said...

Thanks for a wonderful piece (as always). Jenkins' memorable quote, "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing" reminds me of what Molly Brown ("The unsinkable Molly Brown") is supposed to have said to keep up the spirits and efforts of the tired men plying the oars of the lifeboat she was in, as they pulled away from the sinking Titanic: "The critics say I can't sing, but listen to this!" And then she proceeded to yodel in the dark cold night. Must have been totally surrealistic, given the macabre scene and the circumstances.