Walter Mencken 11:31 a.m., Feb. 1
The Beast with Two Backs
If you've listened to classical music and never blushed at the blatant sexuality these composers are flaunting, then you may want to listen a little closer. As we might imagine, the Italians make it most clear but the Russians run a very close second. The Germans are out, too much philosophy and universal brotherhood and what not. The French are okay but tend to give us an impression of sex, well, except Carmen. Need I mention the Brits?
Let's start with the Russians. Two pieces come to mind. Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony 3rd Movement and Khachaturian's Adagio from Spartacus. The climaxes in each of these pieces are not so much explosive as enveloping and caressing. The Spartacus climax drips with sensuality but the Rachmaninoff is the stronger of the two because he gives us some snuggling music and then takes us for a second time.
Now the two Italian entries. Puccini's 1st act duet in Madama Butterfly and Leoncavallo's Siciliana which opens his opera Cavalleria Rusticana.
In Butterfly, American Naval Officer B. F. Pinkerton and Japanese geisha Cio Cio San get married. Technically they're married but in reality Pinkerton has purchased a concubine until he can find an American wife. Beings how it is their wedding night and he did pay, Pinkerton is ready to go but Butterfly is still thinking about the ceremony, her angry uncle and the beauty of the evening. Finally they start singing about love in very general terms but the music gives us all we need. Both singers and the entire orchestra fall into an arching, unison melody. This is code for Puccini. Whenever the tenor and soprano fall into a huge unison line, they're doing it. The duet ends with both singers on a suspended high C that is resolved with a massive brass crescendo and symbol crash. Hello!
Cavalleria is even more blatant. the show starts with Turriddu serenading his new lover Lola. Turriddu has already knocked up unwed Santuzza and, of course, Lola is married to another man. As Turriddu finishes his serenade, there is a repetitive figure that grows until the brass joins, symbol crash, hello--kind of like Butterfly until you hear the underlying tremolo in the low strings. Leoncavallo is screaming at us that after the climax the lovers are still trembling and trembling and trembling.