February 14, 2016

Romeo & Juliet and the Mystery of the Three Cello Quartets

Wagner: lovesick cello trend-setter
The title of this post sounds vaguely like an old Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book title, doesn't it? (Boy, did I just date myself... oh well...)

But it's true: I have a genuine musical mystery to present to you. No answers, just a puzzle. Actually, I can make an "educated speculation" to explain part of the mystery, but not all of it. Here's the deal:

In Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, the duet that opens Act IV is introduced by a passage for four solo celli. They present a theme first heard in the Prologue, just before the curtain rises on Act I. The theme in question is the one I labeled "Absent Love" in my most recent post, owing to the fact that each title character sings it when contemplating being without the other. Here it is:

So what's the big mystery, you ask? Simply this:

This cello quartet is one of three cello quartets introducing operatic love duets in three operas, all written within a span of some thirty-four years.

The other two are by a couple of composers you may have heard of: Wagner and Verdi.

In Wagner's Die Walküre, the love duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde is introduced by a cello quartet that projects a similarly tender affect. So who influenced whom here? That's tricky.

Die Walküre was first performed in 1870, some three years after Romeo. But before you wag your finger at Wagner for copying off of Gounod's exam paper, remember this: Die Walküre was composed long before its first public performance, around 1853. I can't imagine any circumstance in which Charles Gounod could have had access to Wagner's score. I don't think they belonged to the same bowling league and I don't think they got together to drink beer and play darts all that often. Having said that, Gounod certainly was not immune to the power of Wagner's music and spoke up in defense of Tannhäuser after it bombed at its premiere in Paris. But still - the timing is all wrong for him to have studied Walküre and observed the duet introduction.

Am I wrong?

And ... the mystery deepens!

Because in 1887, Verdi's Otello premieres. Act I features "Gia nella notte densa" the love duet between Otello and Desdemona. It, too, is introduced by a cello quartet.


Is it purely coincidence? Here's the problem: all three of these guys are dead, so we can't email them and ask them. Pity. If I was a certain type of scholar, I would spend the next five years of my life traveling around the world, examining the personal papers of Wagner, Gounod and Verdi to see if I could unearth some clue in a letter or diary or whatever.

I'm not that type of scholar.

BUT - I do have a partial theory which feels right to me and at least would explain Verdi's choice of instrumentation for his duet intro.

Wagner died in 1883, four years before Otello. Otello was Verdi's first opera since he had retired from the opera profession following Aida in 1871. So this was his first opera since the death of Wagner. It's clear that Wagner and Verdi did not actually love one another's work, but each recognized the statue of the other. Upon learning of Wagner's passing, Verdi wrote to Giulio Ricordi, his publisher, the following note:

Triste! Triste! Triste! Wagner è morto! (Sad! Sad! Sad! Wagner is dead!)

Genius generally knows genius.

Now click on the links to the Walküre and Otello excerpts. Listen to the first four notes only of each cello introduction. Do you hear what I hear? The Verdi quartet begins with the very same harmonic sonority, with a similar descending motion in the melodic line, just pitched a third higher.

It seems reasonable to speculate that Verdi may have intended this as a tip of the cap to a recently-deceased fellow artist; as an homage.

That still leaves me wondering how Gounod could have been familiar with two operas he couldn't have heard performed until after Romeo and Juliet was introduced to the public.

Any theories from you Faithful Readers? Have at it!

With this, I bid adieu to Romeo and his Main Squeeze Juliet. Next up: a series of posts about Wagner's Flying Dutchman. Naturally, the opera in question being Flying Dutchman, we'll be referencing Bill Murray's Groundhog Day, The Matrix, Ava Gardner, Tom Hanks, Holden Caulfield, Artur Schopenhauer and stuff like that. As one does. Curious? Check back!

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