Bostridge and me

I’m in the July issue of Gramophone, the cheerful, energetic British classical CD magazine. That’s old news by now, I guess, but they were late in sending me the issue, and I was late in looking at it. They like to reprint things they read in blogs, and they chose my “Boring Old Handel” post from this past April, which they cut very skillfully, to fill the space they had for it.

My title, of course, was ironic. What I meant was that Handel, in his time, was anything but boring, and that his operas were unabashed spectacle, visual, vocal, and orchestral. They were also occasions for gossip and scandal, often highly sexual. What they were not, most clearly, were artistic efforts in which everyone tried their best to realize Handel’s penetrating dramaturgy, which may exist in the music (not always, I think, but that’s another story), but certainly — in performances back then — took a far back seat to sheer excitement.

As I wrote, and as Gramophone printed,

“Starved of all this gossip and spectacle, Baroque opera as it’s performed today is – to speak bluntly — a 21st century fabrication, in which we contort these pieces into something there’s no sign that they were ever meant to be.”

But here’s another irony. On the cover of Gramophone that month was Ian Bostridge, interviewed about (among other things) his new CD of Handel arias. And he takes Handel very seriously. He talks about Handel writing his operas for a tiny elite, which is true, if you compare the size and social class of his audience with the audience for classical music now. But it’s also misleading to look at it that way, because the behavior of this audience — raucous, inattentive, at times scathing — was nothing the word “elite” might ever suggest to us. (It’s also worth nothing that even if the core of the audience was noblemen, the noblemen brought their servants, who sat or stood, I don’t know which, up in the balcony, and were very noisy.)

Bostridge also talks about the castrati, the castrated Italian men who sang leading roles in all Baroque operas, including Handel’s. Here’s what he said, as deftly recounted by the writer of the article, Patrick O’Connor:

In London…they definitely preferred their male singers to be castrati, “for which [now quoting Bostridge] there must be all sorts of ideological and social-fashion reasons to do with Catholicism. The anti-Catholic feeling was enormous in Georgian England, so audiences relished the idea of going to see castrated Catholics on stage.” This seems a rather startling notion; is it much researched? “No, I just invented it.”

Actually, I think it’s clear that, first, the London audience loved seeing fashionable celebrities on stage, and, second, that (like audiences elsewhere in Europe) they loved the air of sexual scandal that the castrati breathed. As I wrote (Gramophone didn’t quote the second paragraph):

[C]astration of boys for musical purposes was illegal in Italy. But it was widely practiced, and here were the castrati to prove it, each one representing a flagrant violation of the law. They were almost like liquor during prohibition — legally forbidden, but (with a wink and a grin) widely known to be available.

And on top of that, they were sexually potent. Their castration robbed them of any chance to have children, but they could (and did) have erections from morning till night. Some were gay, some were straight. The straight ones were much in demand as sexual indulgences, for women in the nobility. They were celebrities, after all — and they couldn’t get you pregnant.

Bostridge is entitled to his view, of course, and (quite seriously) I love the zaniness of propounding, in public, a theory you haven’t even remotely bothered to check. That’s very rock & roll. But the classical music world takes itself far too seriously, and doesn’t think very much — even avoids thinking about — the things about the music that, centuries ago, weren’t serious at all.I’ve often made a fuss about the extravagant vocal ornamentation that singers in

Handel’s time indulged in (and were expected to indulge in). Just about nobody today dares to do it. It violates one of the central ideas of classical music scripture — the role of the performer is to realize the composer’s intentions! So you can change the composer’s text only modestly, even if the composer expected his text to be transformed almost totally into something else. I wonder how much ornamentation Bostridge does. Not much, I’d guess. Which for me would mean that he doesn’t understand Handel at all, though I’m sure he’d disagree, which he has every right to do.

(My apologies to him if he ornaments like a demon, and my guess that he doesn’t is based only on my own ignorance. But I’ve read two interviews with him about this CD, and he doesn’t mention ornaments at all.)


And on a similar note…I was reading the liner notes in the reissue of the old Philips recording of Verdi’s La battaglia di Legnano. They’re by Julian Budden, whose three-volume study of Verdi’s operas certainly qualifies him as an authority.

Budden talks, among other things, about the opera’s librettist, Salvatore Cammarano., whom Verdi revered, because he’d written the libretto to one of the greatest pre-Verdi Italian operas, Lucia di Lammermoor. So in Budden’s description of Cammarano’s work on this piece, I read the following (emphasis mine):

He preserved the essentials [of the play that Cammarano based the opera on] while altering several of its details and adding the moral and sentimental embellishments that an Italian audience demanded.

He wanted to please his audience, in other words. Which apparently was OK in the 19th century (Budden doesn’t say a word against it, and neither do other Verdi authorities.) But – to judge from the denunciations of pop music we sometimes read, coming from the classical music world — it isn’t OK now.

Which is fascinating. Verdi authorities seem to love the popularity, in Verdi’s time, of his operas. But in our time, some of these same people probably think that popularity is proof that something is shallow and cheap. So what changed? Why was popularity healthy in 1850, but now is lethal in 2007? Were 19th century culture and society more healthy than ours? I don’t mean this simply as a “gotcha” — I want to take it further than simply pointing out an apparent contradiction.

I’d like to know the theory, that (whether or not it’s explicitly articulated) lets people believe that popularity, formerly a good thing, has now turned ugly.

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  1. Theresa says

    I don’t approve of everything Bostridge says or even does musically, but I’ll defend to the death his right to say and do it. He’s one of the few really brave performers on today’s classical scene

  2. says

    “Why was popularity healthy in 1850, but now is lethal in 2007? Were 19th century culture and society more healthy than ours? I don’t mean this simply as a “gotcha” — I want to take it further than simply pointing out an apparent contradiction. I’d like to know the theory, that (whether or not it’s explicitly articulated) lets people believe that popularity, formerly a good thing, has now turned ugly.”

    One possibility here is that you’re comparing the attitudes of two different social groups. The contemporary popular audience doesn’t think popularity is ulgy–on the contrary we are a nation obsessed with the popular. Classical music used to be owned by the public, and the public desires popularity. But during the course of the 20th century the ownership of classical music has shifted to the hands of cultural elitists, who protect their sense of superiority by declaring that the public is full of ignorant rubes and that “popularity” consists of appealing to people with inferior taste.

    The real question, then, is what were the attitudes of the cultural elitists in 1850? I suspect they were busy decrying the popular. If so, the change isn’t a change in the fundamental nature of the culture, but a simple shift in ownership of the cultural artifact of classical music.

  3. says

    The Italian opera scholar Philip Gossett writes in his recent book Divas and Scholars of numerous contemporary instances in which modern singers, directors and conductors alter Verdi’s structure, ostensibly for crowd-pleasing reasons. Some of them are in the spirit of Verdi, and Gossett supports them, and other he describes as contradictory, and then he writes why. He’s one major Verdi scholar (he assembled the critical editions) who’s in favor of pleasing the crowd. Who are the scholars you’re criticizing?

    I like Philip Gossett’s work, but to cite him in my Handel context is apples and oranges. In his book, if I remember correctly, he largely talks about cuts, and small changes in the written (musical) text, like the added high C’s in “Di quella pira,” and altered cadenzas (in, for instance, “Il balen”).

    I’m talking about something rather different — wholesale ornamentation of the written text, which was done in the 19th century as well as the 18th, but isn’t what Gossett is talking about, because it isn’t done today.

    Handel scholars now are generally cautious about these changes. I asked a leading scholar of Baroque opera (I don’t want to mention the name, but musicologists would recognize it instantly) to recommend a Handel recording in which ornaments were done in a true 18th century style. The recommendation I got, after a cautious pause, was a David Daniels recording which, while wonderful in all other ways, wasn’t at all ornamented in authentic style. This showed me that this leading scholar hadn’t really considered this issue, at least not in the terms that I think are important.

    For a scholarly discussion of the reluctance of scholars to embrace 18th century practice (even though they know what it is), see Ellen Harris, “Integrity and Improvisation in the Music of Handel,” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 8, No. 3. (Summer, 1990), pp. 301-315.