Beautiful songs and a great old rogue: Johann von Háry


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Hungary is a small country in Middle Europe near Austria. In the beginning of the 16th century a group of the Hungarian nobles elected a king from the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty for Hungary. Thus, Hungary become a constituent country of the Hapsburg Empire and remained so up to the beginning of the 20th century.

Johann von Háry – in Hungarian “Háry János” – is a central figure of the Hungarian legends. He was a hussar sergeant in the (Austro-Hungarian) queen’s army, a great hero, and an even a greater – but otherwise likeable – liar. After he had returned to his small village in Hungary as a veteran, he frequently attended the local pub and always presented his heroic actions provided someone paid the wine he needed.  The more he drunk, the more unbelievable his adventures became. He was the Hungarian counterpart of Baron Munchausen.

Why do the Hungarian like “Johann von Háry” or, in Hungarian, “Háry János”? The reason is that he was “very Hungarian” and always told the queen and her court the “Hungarian truth”. So he was a real patriot – almost as dangerous as the Patriot missils nowadays 🙂 .

It was the famous Hungarian composer, Zoltán Kodály, who created a musical play about the life of Háry. Many of the songs in the play are real Hungarian folk songs arranged by Kodály according to his own style. Some of the songs were written by Kodály himself.

The play starts in the village pub – Háry, as an old man, tells the audience one of his tales. Of course, (about 1800)  he alone defeated the whole army of Emperor Napoleon. Marie Louise, Napoleon’s wife, wanted to be his lover. The Austro-Hungarian queen, Marie Therese, asked him to marry her daughter and to share with him her empire. But Háry did not need these – he was unable to live in the queen’s court filled with strange or stupid aristocrats – he wanted to return to his village in Hungary, to marry his fiancée, Örzse (Elizabeth, Lizzy) and live as an ordinary man. This is the essence of the story, the rest is conveyed by the songs. (Nevertheless, more details can be found here).

Would you like to listen to some beautiful music from the play?

– “Intermezzo“. The music contains elements from the Hungarian folk music. The dance also involves special Hungarian steps and figures.

– “Toborzó“. Built also from folklore elements this fiery song serves the recruitment of new hussars from the peasant lads in Hungary. Hey, there is nothing better than soldier’s life/ Come with us and be a soldier if you like it – the lyrics say this.

– “Tiszán innen, Dunán túl“, that is, approximately, “At the Tisza and Duna”. Tisza and Duna are the two largest rivers of Hungary and here these symbolize the Hungarian homeland. The song presents pictures about Hungary, including nature, food, people and love. This is a real folk song.

It may be surprising but the “Háry János” is somewhat similar to Gershwin’sPorgy and Bess” as both are based on special folklores. Mussorgsky’s operas also contain folklore elements and there may be even other examples, too.

“Háry János” shows the humorous side of the Austro-Hungarian or rather the Hapsburg-Hungarian relationships. The serious side is that Hungary started and lost two independence wars  against Hapsburg-Austria (and the allied Russia) during its history (1703-1711 and 1848-1849). The present relations of the two independent countries are excellent.



Lully vs. Strauss


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I was rather surprised when a search of Youtube yielded something different for the search phrase “Di rigori armato il seno”. To be more precise, the result was in perfect agreement with the search phrase but it was not my favourite tenor aria of the Italian singer from the “Der Rosenkavalier” (“The Knight of the Rose”) by Richard Strauss. It was  a soprano aria sung in a rather old style; the gestures of the singer were rigid and probably tried to convey some symbolical messages.

It turned out that this version of the aria “Di rigori armato” belongs to the work “Ballet des nations” by Jean-Baptiste Lully. The latter was written to the play  “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (“The Middle-Class Aristocrat”) by Molière in the 17th century.

The tune of this soprano aria is different to that of the version by Strauss but the lyrics appear to be the same. The Wikipedia mentions that Strauss and his librettist (otherwise a serious poet), Hugo von Hofmannsthal, used some parts of  the “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”. It seems that the lyrics finally found their ways to the “Der Rosenkavalier”.

But I am not a historian specialized to opera so I will not pursue this connection further.  I suggest that we should simply  listen to both versions of the “Di rigori…”.

Let Strauss’s version be the first to come – this time in an apparently strange direction. The usual framework is this: the still attractive wife of a marshal in Vienna opens her drawing room to her visitors.  Among the latters an Italian singer arrives who – in the name of an admirer – sings the serenade “Di rigori…” to the lady: I thought my heart would resist to love; but how could even an icicle resist to a fiery arrow?

But hey, why does this aria end on a long but low note? In  this unusual interpretation you get a stunning high end note.

Now we concentrate on Lully’s version. The same content – love is eternal – but with another music. I like this, too. It is also nice but in a more classical sense. How do you think?

Of course, I feel a bit ashamed as an opera fan. So come old guys, Lully, Grétry, Gluck, from the early period of opera!

Song of India

Having seen our home-made guitars our father decided to buy two usable ones for me and my younger brother. I strongly wanted to play my wonderful new guitar but I was unable to find anybody who would have been able to teach me in our small village.

Fortunately, however, a guitar is not a piano or violin – it is easier to play it at least at the beginning. I and my “guitarist” friends taught the copied chords to each other on a “blind leading blind” basis. Nevertheless, after several weeks the girls working in the nearby hairdresser salon thought that there was a radio playing songs in the backyard – but that was only me. They said I would be a teenager star and I enthusiastically agreed with them. 🙂

Later I already tried to play more difficult beat, pop and rock guitar solos from the radio and TV – with more or less (often less) success. I especially would have liked to play two instrumental hits of the Hungarian band “Atlantis“, the “Song of India” and “Flight of the bumble bee”.

The reader is very lucky as I can show him/her both “opuses” as they were presented by band “Atlantis” decades ago (Flight of the bumble bee and Song of India).

After many years, when I was already interested in opera and  classical music, I learned  that these hits of the band “Atlantis” were adaptations of the  works of the great Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov.

The “Song of India” is my actual favourite because of the strange (apparently) oriental character of its tune. So let me write about this from now on.

I was really surprised that the original version of the “Song of India” is an aria from the fairy tale opera “Sadko” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Sadko is a Russian folk hero, who dares to dream and to realize his dreams: he acquires some money (with the help of a little miracle), goes abroad to trade and – after many adventures – returns to his town, Novgorod, as a rich man. He acquires even the river Volhov for his town.

In the fourth of the seven scenes of the opera the foreign traders describe their own countries helping thereby Sadko to choose an attractive place abroad. Three songs are sung by the foreign guests but it is the “Song of the Indian guest” (“Песня индийского гостя” in Russian or simply “Song of India”) that became truly popular.

Here is a Russian interpretation of the aria with dancers. In this recording the aria is sung by the legendary Spanish tenor of the XXth century, Alfredo Kraus, in Spanish language.

What is the song about?

Of course, it is about the wonderful India, where lots of gemstones can be found and the sea is full of beautiful pearls. What is more, there is a great ruby stone in the warm sea and a phoenix is sitting on that stone. This, however, is a miraculous phoenix: its face is like a virgin’s one and its extended wings cover the entire sea. Listen to its singing and you will forget everything.

Thus, listening to this aria is a cheep but beautiful way to the fairy India; just listen to the gorgeous tune and accompaniment, and you will be there soon. (Do not forget the gemstones and the pearls.) 🙂

There is a Russian film about Sadko, too.  It contains music but is not an opera film. It was created around 1950 and shows the life in the medieval Russia in a realistic yet humorous approach.

The “Song of the Indian guest” can also be presented purely instrumentally, substituting the human voice by a violin.  Here a talented family group plays the piece in an unusual arrangement.

Of course, the tune appears in jazz as well, see, for example, Tommy Dorsey’s big band version. The original material is so good that it survives everything including  even the synth pop presentations. 🙂

The adaptations of some classical pieces were already treated in the post Opera dancing, ramming or smashing? It is worth reading it again.

This was a glimpse of my amateur musical career. 🙂 But, of course, the beautiful aria is much more interesting.

Do you like the classical adaptations and the crossover singers?

Hunyadi László — Another Great Opera from a Small Country


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In a previous post (Bánk Bán — a Great Opera from a Small Country) I wrote about the Hungarian composer, Ferenc Erkel, and his main opera, Bánk bán.

Hunyadi László is another great opera by Ferenc Erkel but – similarly to Bánk bán – it is also unknown to the international audience. The reason, again, can be that the plot of the opera is too closely connected to Hungarian medieval history and can be hard to assimilate abroad. However, it is definitely worth getting acquainted with, as it is full of beautiful arias, choir parts – many of these could be an “opera hit”.

After all, the basic line of the plot is not too complicated. King László V (tenor) (around 1400)  is a talentless and weak ruler who nevertheless loves drinking and women. The knights of the young prince, László Hunyadi (Leslie or Ladislaus of Hunyad, tenor), kill the wicked patron and friend of László V because of a political intrigue but the king (apparently) forgives them and the prince attributing the case to the fiery Hungarian temper.

However, later the king meets Mária (Maria, soprano), the fiancée of Prince László and wants her to be his lover. The father of Mária, the first lord of Hungary after the king,  apparently supports the desire of the king as his own daughter is only a tool for him to put down king László and acquire the throne for himself.

Finally the king sentences Prince László to death and he is executed.

This is a very sad ending but the Hungarian audience knows from the history of the country that László would lose the kingdom soon and die; Mátyás (Matthias), the younger brother of Prince László, will be a new and great king.

My favourite parts of the opera are the following:

Aria of prince Laszló to his fiancée, Mária

In this love song Prince László confesses how much he is longing for his fiancée, Mária, during his service in a castle on the Hungarian border (while waiting for a possible attack of the Turkish army). “Come to me Mária, one of the angels of Heaven,”  he says; “You are my Sunshine sending the rays of the dawn,”  he continues. That is, we have a classical love song (in the Italian operatic style at that time) but the tune is beautiful.

Meghalt a cselszövő (The plotter has died)

It is a great choir sung by the Hungarian knights/soldiers when they learn that the king forgives them. They say that – as the plotter is dead – there will be no more quarrel among the Hungarian and the Nation has finally found its true king. But during the happy choir the king says at low voice that he wants revenge, and the executioner’s axe is waiting for the head of Prince László…

Szememben mámor, öröm ragyog (Rapture and joy in my eyes)

Mária sings this before her wedding with Prince László. A subtle soprano aria in the traditional Hungarian style “verbunkos”.

Mily szép vagy édesem (How beautiful you are, My Love)

This duet is sung by Mária and Prince lászló when they meet before their wedding. From the lyrics: “How beautiful you are no matter you are happy or sad, I see God on your face…” The style of the duet is the traditional Hungarian “verbunkos”.

Palotás (Palotás, a dance in the courts of the medieval Hungarian lords)

The guests dance in the wedding of Prince László and his fiancée, Mária. Before the event ends, however, soldiers come and take László to the prison… The dance itself represents a beautiful Hungarian tradition, the dance tune, however,  was written by Erkel in the traditional Hungarian style “verbunkos”.

Áldjon meg isten (God bless you)

Mária opens the door of the prison and asks László to escape. However, he rejects  as  a prince does not do so and his innocence will turn out soon. Finally the father of Mária discovers them and the chance has gone… The young pair bids farewell: “God bless you my knight/my beautiful angel, your true lover waits for you even after the grave…”

Aria of the mother of prince László

In this difficult soprano aria the mother of prince László describes her fears that something fatal will happen to his sons, László and Matthias. The aria is often called la Grange aria since Erkel intended it for the famous female singer  Anne la Grange.

There are young Hungarian directors who sometimes try to show this opera as a romantic drama about honour, love and violence – regardless of Hungarian history. It is not impossible that one of these versions will be succesful abroad, too.

Bánk Bán – a great opera from a small country


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Hungary lies in Central Europe, bordering Austria. Traditionally it belongs to the roman christianity and is part of the western culture. It has a 1000-year long history in Europe. After difficult historical periods its territory now is only 93000 km2, which is populated by 10 million people. It has a 1000-year long history in Europe. After difficult historical periods its territory now is only 93000 km2, which is populated by 10 million people.

Despite its smallness, Hungary has given a number of famous musicians to the world. These are composers such as Liszt, Bartók, Kodály, Dohnanyi, Kurtag and also directors such as Dorati, Ormandy, Solti,  Fischer, among others.

Ferenc Erkel, however, who was a composer of the same magnitude, is practically unknown for the worldwide audience (except for a few professional musicians).

Erkel wrote a number of operas in the second half of the 19th century whose plots are connected to special periods of the Hungarian history. Perhaps this is one of  the reasons why these operas remained unknown abroad in contrast, for example,  to the “Bartered Bride” and “Rusalka”. The latter two also were written in a small Central European country, but their plot is completely international and can be easily assimilated anywhere  in the civilized world.

Nevertheless, Erkel’s operas also deserve attention. Let me publicize Erkel’s  main opera entitled “Bánk Bán” here. Bánk bán was a real figure in the Hungarian medieval history, Bánk is his name (there was only one at that time) and bán is his rank, like lord, princess, earl etc.

The  brief plot of the opera is as follows: While king Endre (Andrew) the 2nd (bass) is leading a chrusade, his wife, Gertrudis (mezzo), who was born outside Hungary, cruelly rules Hungary. She gives favours to her German-born mates and neglects the Hungarian lords. One of the latters, Lord Petur (Peter) (baritone) makes a plot against the queen and calls Lord Bánk (tenor) back to the king’s court. Bánk is the first lord of Hungary, the deputy of the king, who was sent by the wicked queen to distant provinces in order to investigate some complaints.

In addition to these political problems it turns out that Otto (tenor), the cousin of the queen – using an aphrodisiac – violates Bánk’s wife, Melinda (soprano), who lives in the king’s court as a lady in attendance.

After learning this Bánk is in ruins but finally forgives her – essentially innocent, see the aphrodisiac – wife and send her back to their own castle together with their small son. However, the wife, Melinda, cannot cope with what she thinks a sin, goes mad and throws herself into a river taking her son with herself to die.

Bánk queries the queen and when she – during the quarrel – takes a snare out, he kills her. His reasons are twofold:  the revenge for Melinda, who was violated with the aid of the queen but also the hopeless state of the country.

King Endre the 2nd, after his return wants to take a revenge for his wife and to duel with Bánk. But at this moment a servant arrives and reports the death of Bánk’s wife and son. So the revenge is full.

The music of the opera is a mix of the operatic trends at that time and the special Hungarian folk style “verbunkos”. It is full of beautiful tunes and musical  “hits”. For a foreign audience the music may seem even a bit exotic but it can be assimilated completely.

These are my favourite arias:

Melinda, te égi név

The title means “Heavenly name, Melinda”. Bánk sings this when he learns that there was something between Otto and Melinda but does not know the details. He loves her wife and is sad because of her infidelity.

Hazám, hazám

The title means “My home country”. Bánk (tenor) sings about his beautiful country, Hungary, which must be first saved from the wicked queen, even if his wife’s sin hurts. Even Placido Domingo sang this aria in one of his concerts in Hungary. 🙂

From the duet of Bánk and his wife, Melinda:

Ölj meg engem Bánk

Te title means “I beg you Bánk to kill me”. Melinda wants Bánk to kill her but, despite her sin, continue to love their small son. Note that all this takes place in the medieval times and Bánk, as a lord, has the right to judge.

Hol van fehér homlokod liljomvirága

The title means “Where is the lily from your white forehead”. Here Bánk answers Melinda’s aria “I beg you Bánk to kill me”, singing that he, although sad, still loves Melinda and does not want to hurt her.

“Magyar hazám falvait bejártam” (from 4:56 in the  full duet of Bánk and the queen)

The title means “I saw the villages of my poor Hungary”. When Bánk and the queen fight with each other Bánk tells the queen that the country is dying and Hungarian people damn her for her merciless ruling. Otherwise the aria is very hard as you can hear.


“Bordal” means “A Drinking-Song”. Lord Petur sings this in the gathering of the conspirators at the beginning of the opera. The lord sings that all should drink good wine because it helps with love and your other plans and eventually the whole word will cease like a big bubble… Actually this is a bitter manly song.

Here you can see a “verbunkos”, music and dance in the traditional folk style. “Verbung” is a word of German origin meaning “recruiting”.

Do you like this? Are you interested in the full opera? In Hungary?

The sensual opera


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Opera is a passion and sometimes triggers passion… In need of an enchanting night with your partner? The opera-lover recommends the following: listen to the duet “Barcarolle” (“Belle nuit ô nuit d’amour”) from Offenbach’s opera “Les contes d’Hoffmann” (“The Tales of Hoffmann”) and everything is granted. 😉

This duet is sung in the Venice spot of the opera, perhaps during the famous carnival, when nobody recognizes you and everything is allowed. The closer venue is the palace of the famous courtesan, Giulietta, where the gathered company is about to indulge in sensual pleasures. The tune sung by Giulietta and another important character, Nicklausse, waves together with the water of lagunas in the night.

The lyrics of the duet reflect on the night devoted to love which – as such – is much better than the daylight. Love that the night gives as time flies and never returns again…

Nicklausse (although male) is usually sung by a mezzo while Giulietta is a soprano. Here we listen to the duet as delivered by two very talented sisters with piano accompaniment. On the internet you will probably find a number of other presentations, too.

Are you saying that this is one of the ringtones on your cellphone? 🙂

By the way, the full opera is a strange fairy tale – mainly intended for adults. The poet, Hoffmann, is a great lover of fine wine and women. He falls in love with three women in the opera, one of them is actually a robot-girl. Hoffmann, however, seeks his true love, a fourth woman in these three. A dark man, probably the devil, also appears in the story and rivals with Hoffmann for the ladies.

Listen here to Hoffmann as he is entertaining his company with a story about an awkward figure, Kleinzack, in the pub. My favourite tenor, Marcelo Alvarez, sings.

It appears that The Tales of Hoffmann – well before the modern times – tries to say something important about the female role and fate in the human society. Of course, it speaks to our heart rather than our mind. If you go and see the Tales you probably will know more.

Cursed love


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It was my grandfather, Matthias (1889-1981), from whom I first heard about Charles Gounod’s opera, Faust. He lived in a small town in Hungary, Mezőkövesd (an approximate translation of Mezőkövesd is  “Fieldstones”), which is now famous for its folk art and sulfur-rich hot water. Matthias was an agricultural worker.  These workers often formed larger groups and could be hired for different agricultural works in the country including, for example, harvesting. He was a tough guy, and, as such, especially appropriate for the military service in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. He served there before and during the first world war.

In a calm period their regiment was stationed in a small town somewhere in the Monarchy. The local amateur singers and musicians decided to present the Faust to the local audience (in the lack of a nearby music theatre). With an extraordinary idea the male members of the chorus  were recruited from Matthias’s regiment. Blessed with good musical skills and a nice tenor voice, the handsome “zugsführer” (sergeant), Matthias, found himself on the “opera stage” in a moment. (Of course, he had never sung opera before that, he sang only Hungarian folk songs.)

The once proud soldier, already about 70, was frequently asked to take care of his small grandchildren, me and my younger brother. He wanted to entertain us, so he sang the choir parts of Faust for us but – explaining the story – a number of arias, too. Just because he memorized these 50 years before. Of course, I do not know how much of his presentation was really Gounod’s music and how much was improvised by himself. We, as small kids, primarily liked his acting, especially when he formed the devil. 🙂 But if I have some musical skills, my grandfather probably has a lot to do with it.

The Faust  – somewhat simplifying the involved plot – tells us how the elderly scientist, Faust, sells his own soul to the devil for the eternal youth and what happens afterwards. When Faust is young again he and Mephistofeles, the devil go to re-discover the world. Faust falls in love with the beautiful young girl Marguerite. However, nothing can be allright with the devil – Faust finally  spoils the innocent Marguerite, the girl goes mad and kills her own baby. As the title says this is a cursed love. Faust wants to help Marguerite to escape from the prison, but she – because of Mephistofele – refuses this. Nevertheless, Marguerite avoids execution:  the Lord forgives her and the angels take her to Heaven.

This opera contains many great “hits”. From these we present Faust’s cavatina here: “Salut demeure chaste et pure” meaning I greet you, home chaste and pure. At Marguerite’s house Faust greets the home in which Nature brought up Marguerite, where the small girl became a beautiful and attractive woman (see the English lyrics here). The tension and tempo of the  cavatina gradually increase until the cusp point, the famous high C, near the end of the aria.   The cavatina is usually sung by lyric tenors.

First a talented young singer, Max An delivers the cavatina with a piano accompaniment. Then the same piece is presented by the star tenor, Marcelo Alvarez, on stage. (On the homepage of Alvarez we must click on the arrow to start the video.)

In this last video there is something strange. What is the Reader’s opinion of that?

That terrible pyre


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In this post I invite you to listen to the grand aria “Stretta” (“Di quella pira”) from the opera “Il trovatore” (The Troubadour) by Giuseppe Verdi. This very famous tenor aria is sung by one of the main characters, Manrico (the troubadour), and the singers usually close it with a sustained high C note. (To my best knowledge, this high C is not included in Verdi’s score of the opera.)

Manrico is just conversating with his lady, Leonora, when he learns that the enemy wants to burn the old gypsy woman, Azucena, at the stake. Manrico considers Azucena his mother and likes her very much. So he collects his soldiers and hurries to rescue her. In the “Stretta” he promises to kill the enemy and rescue Azucena or else die together with her. (See the lyrics here.)

First listen to an amateur presentation of the aria (from Marco Zanini), which, however, is better than many professional ones delivered in the opera houses. Next we can hear and see how the star tenor, Marcelo Alvarez, delivers the “Stretta” on stage (woman: Leonora; choir: Manrico’s soldiers).

In the “Stretta” the emotions are very intense and the whole situation is rather serious maybe even tragical. Such great heights, however, always pose a little threat to the operas, as well, since too much dignity or an oversized tragedy may prove humorous for the audience.

With my highest respects towards the opera and the “serious” singers, let me finally show you a nice video parody of the “Stretta”. The title of this video is “Di quella pira with high ‘F'”. For a tenor a high F note is extraordinarily difficult to reach as the C-D-E-F series shows. Thus, the title probably attracts a large audience according to the intentions of the author. By the way, the high F is probably hit in the video as promised, but see how. We remark that the “singer” in the video knows the original aria very well. For example, when he grabs the ball, Manrico grabs Leonora in the serious version. 🙂

Do you like sentimental, heroic, tragical pieces? Why?
Do you like this humorous video?  Why?
Do you know other opera parodies?

Love and Death


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For many people love is both life and death: it means tolerating everything for her/his love, suffering and going to Heaven, burning ourselves in the inner fire that lasts for life and never decreases. This is written, painted and sculptured  by the artists, this is what they try to express through their poems and music. Confronted with such heigths of love, we might secretly ask ourselves: was I ever really in love, did I find the one who was meant for me?

The operas beautifully express all forms and stations of  the hottest love a human being can feel. In the arias about love passion achieves an extraordinary density due to the miracle of music. A lone tune on the flute or violin, an accord by the harp or a song that fades away makes us understand everything at once.

In this post I would like to introduce one of my favourite arias. This is a very masculine aria, including everything  that traditionally characterizes a young man: challenge, fire, desire, courage – and the glad irresponsibility.

The opera Rustic Chivalry (“Cavalleria Rusticana”) by Pietro Mascagni is set in a small village in the hot Sicily and the time is Easter Sunday. The young lad, Turiddu, courts to Santuzza but cannot forget his former lover, the beautiful Lola, whom he had to leave because of his service in the army and who, in the meantime, has married the teamster, Alfio. In this difficult love mess the offended Santuzza, who starts to lose her good fame, too, makes a desperate move: reveals the infidelity to Alfio. Alfio waits for Turiddu in the field, and the latter – perhaps driven by his troubled conscience – accepts the challenge. In their knife duel Turiddu dies, paying this way for his love and desire.

The aria known as “Siciliana” (or “O Lola, ch’ai di latti la cammisa”) follows at the very start of the one-act opera. It is the serenade of Turiddu to Lola accompanied by a single harp that could be a guitar, too. In the aria Turiddu sings that Lola is beautiful and it will be the gladdest lad in the world who can kiss her for the first time. Blood will be shed at her doorstep, and Turiddu himself could die for Lola. But the dead Turiddu would refuse going to the Paradise since Lola is not there.

In this video Placido Domingo sings the aria. These are the starting pictures of the classical opera film directed by the great Franco Zeffirelli (and made available by Deutsche Grammophon). We see Turiddu on the horse (coming probably from Lola at dawn), Lola in the bed and Santuzza in black who spotted her unfaithful lover. Can you sense the great emotional density of the music mentioned earlier that is amplified further by the pictures? Probably for business reasons a small portion is missing at the end of the aria, but, I believe, the reader will be readily able to find the full version as well.

Would you like to sing a similar serenade to your lady/man? What would be that?

The Knight of the Rose


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Those who did not study classical music regularly in their childhood, may be surprised easily by some facts later. I also belong to this group of people.

Did you know, for example, that the German composer Richard Strauss, apart from his family name, has nothing common with the Strauss “dynasty” including Johann Strauss, the “Waltz King” from Vienna?

Did you know that the title music of the legendary film Space Odyssey 2001 by Stanley Kubrick is nothing else than a part of R. Strauss’s Thus spoke Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra). Of course, this music appears in a number of other works too, especially when speaking of evolution or other high subjects.

Today one of the most frequently performed operas by Richard Strauss is The Knight of the Rose (in German “Der Rosenkavalier“). The detailed plot of the opera is rather difficult. Broadly speaking, the young count, Octavian, who is the lover of a more elderly aristocratic lady (the wife of a marshal, in German: Marschallin), leaves her and falls in law with the young Sophie, who is the daughter of a rich and parvenu mercer. It is also important how the other characters react to this change.

At some point of act 1 the Marschallin’s parlour is open to visitors; an Italian singer comes and sings his famous serenade (Di rigori armato il seno) to her on behalf of one of her admirers. In an older and more traditional direction we can see a longer scene, as well. In this the Marschallin’s reception is preceded by her conversation with baron Ochs, who is her relative and wants to to marry the much younger Sophie. The Italian singer follows at the counter 5:35.

This aria is one of my favourites. It speaks poetically about how useless it is to harden your heart in order to resist love (see an English translation here). Otherwise the aria is very difficult to sing.

The Knight of the Rose is the young count Octavian, who gives a silver rose to Sophie as a symbol for the proposal. This is the first occasion they meet – this time Octavian still acts on behalf of the rude and tough baron Ochs.

By the way, Octavian is usually played by a female mezzo singer, since the count – in contrast to baron Ochs – is so sophisticated, refined and fragile that sometimes appears as a woman in the plot.

Let us listen to the duet of Sophie and Octavian when the silver rose is handed over and their love starts to grow. Young female singer apprentices perform with a piano accompaniment (the girl with the rose: Octavian, the knight of the rose;  the other girl: Sophie.)

Here is a longer theatrical scene with an orchestral accompaniment: Sophie stays alone at home; as the counter shows 4:0 the knight of the rose enters and the duet starts.

What do they sing about? At first they conversate about the purpose of Octavian’s visit and how beautiful the silver rose is, which, as a result of some rose oil, has a pleasant fragrance, as well.

But then love suddenly appears between them: they recognize their former love dreams in each other, and feel that this is a great moment that they will not forget until their death. You probably hear that the second excerpt is sung in English.

I became a real R. Strauss fan because of the several-second dissonant theme that occurs at the beginning of the duet and returns several times later. This theme precedes its time musically by several decades. It superimposes on the romantic music invoking the spirit of the great Wagner, and  indicates that this love does not bring full joy for the characters in the plot. The same theme also occurs in the famous trio near the end of the opera.

We close with the Marschallin’s reflections: Why does a woman get old if her soul remains young… And why does she have to see that so clearly? The music is a bit wagnerian again, but, at the same time, deheroized and personal.

Italian, French, German or simply good opera? Which one do you like? 🙂