Creative Projects

Queering Ambient Performance: Prototyping the Digital Tableau Vivant

Yesterday I gave a peformance paper at the Slow Media Conference held at Corsham Court, Bath Spa University. Below is my video presentation and paper. The video (A Garland of Beauty, 2015) is a test piece that exploits digital technologies to expand the remit of the dramatic tableau (as defined by Denis Diderot). Through a reperformed and slowed down version of Judy Garland’s performance of I Could Go on Singing (from the film of the same name), this work seeks to challenge heteronormative understandings of digital and physical space. Referencing the work the of Bill Viola and David Michalek, this film and dance seeks to challenge our concept of space and of place drawing on notions of the uncanny and the queer. Slow motion is used, in particular, to intensify this effect and focus the viewer on small-scale details and immerse them in the emotional and political contents of the picture, whilst also creating a sense of unease.

But, little one, your grief is very profound, and very thoughtful! Why this dreamy, melancholy air? What, all for this bird? You’re not crying, but you’re distressed, and there’s a thought behind your distress[…] That morning, alas, your mother was out; he came, you were alone; he was so handsome, so passionate, so tender, so charming, there was such love in his eyes, such truth in his expression! He said things which went straight to your heart![1]

In his review of Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s painting Girl Weeping for Her Dead Bird (which was exhibited at 1765 Salons in Paris) Denis Diderot attempts to bridge the gap between object and viewer by exploring the narrative potential of Greuze’s

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Girl Weeping for Her Dead Bird (Oil on Canvas, 53.50 x 46.00, Edinburgh National Gallery)
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Girl Weeping for Her Dead Bird (Oil on Canvas, 53.50 x 46.00, Edinburgh National Gallery)

painting.[2] It is the girl’s trance-like state that seems to instigate Diderot’s reading of the work. It offers Diderot the opportunity to participate in the painting’s narrative, as if he were another character standing next to the girl in the room. Diderot’s reaction to Greuze’s painting aligns closely with his thoughts on theatre and, in particular, his notion of the dramatic tableau. According to Diderot, stage drama could learn much from painting.[3] 

Contrasting the effect of pictorial tableaux with that of the coup de théâtre, Diderot states:

An unforeseen incident which takes place in the action and abruptly changes the situation is a coup de théâtre. An arrangement of these characters on stage, so natural and so true that, faithfully rendered by a painter, it would please me on a canvas, is a tableau.[4] 

He goes on to say that ‘if a dramatic work were well made and well performed the stage would offer the spectator as many real tableaux as the action would contain moments suitable for painting.’[5] In short, Diderot perceives good drama to consist of a series of painted (emotional) moments, rather than a continuous flow of abrupt actions and events.

This is not to say that dramatic action is suspended in these tableaux, but that the focus of the drama lies less with the characters’ actions and more with their emotional states. Indeed, although these tableaux are intended to present to the spectator a dramatic moment suspended in time, Diderot also thought of them as host to a latent kinetic energy.

One of Diderot’s most interesting examples of a situation that could be used as a dramatic tableau comes from Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis. As he says:

Can there be anything more passionate than the behaviour of a mother whose daughter is being sacrificed? Let her rush on to the stage like a woman possessed or deranged; let her fill the place with cries; let even her clothes reveal her disorder: all these things are appropriate to her despair. If the mother of Iphigeneia showed herself for one moment to be the Queen of Argos or the wife of the Greek general, she would only seem to be the lowest of creatures. The true dignity which seizes my attention and overwhelms me is the tableau of maternal love in all its truth.[6] 

Diderot’s description of this scene expands the dramatic moment, focusing the reader, in particular, on the emotional aspect of the situation.

Michael Hays has argued that the focus upon emotion is a common feature of Diderot’s literary works, stating that ‘in his plays Diderot focuses on a category of feelings, not on action, and the formal homologue to this turning away from action towards situation is found in Diderot’s interest in the tableau’.[7] What is particularly interesting about Diderot’s description of the scene from the Iphigenia myth described above is that he reduces Clytemnestra’s regal status to that of a domestic mother; her emotional situation causes her to forget the fact she is royalty and the wife of Agamemnon. There are no intricate verses here in Diderot’s tableau, but inarticulate cries and gestures. In this scene Clytemnestra is completely enveloped in the situation; her emotion results solely from maternal instincts. Despite the status of the characters in this scene, the emotions portrayed can be said to be entirely domestic.

Diderot’s notion of dramatic tableaux is based on the idea that dramatic action should focus upon the representation of an intense situation that completely envelops the characters on stage. For a tableau to be truly effective, however, the characters must be unaware of their surroundings and absorbed completely by the emotional situation in which they are placed. The idea of absorption and Diderot’s focus upon absorptive situations and activities in his works is something that art historia Michael Fried argues is also a feature of eighteenth-century French painting.[8] He posits that from around the middle of the century there is growing interest in depicting subjects involved in absorptive actions, such as reading, writing, and thinking. The subjects, according to Fried, are so engaged in their activities and/or mental states that they are unaware that they are the object of someone’s gaze, whether it is that of the viewer or another character in the picture.

Fried sees the focus on absorptive states as contrasting with previous approaches to painting that, more often than not, feature characters that look outside the frame and towards the viewer, or consist of a number of characters that are unaware of the action that is taking place elsewhere in the frame. In Fried’s opinion, paintings that depict absorptive activities are paradoxical in nature; while the viewer is drawn into the painting, seized by the character’s intense state of absorption, they are also excluded, the character being unaware that they are the object of someone’s gaze. In short, a distance is created between the drama and events portrayed in the picture and the viewer.

Diderot’s interest in Greuze’s painting, therefore, lies not just with the girl absorptive mental state, but also with the fact that her deep introspection provides the work a narrative potential – a latent kinetic energy – that opens up an emotional tableau which Diderot is then able to explore. Indeed, in his narrative he speaks of events outside the temporal frame of the painting and of emotions both past and present. It is the girl’s absorptive melancholy state that allows Diderot to penetrate this painting and explore the emotional space of the tableau. Had the painting lacked the apparent introspection, the emotional space in which Diderot wanders would have been limited.

*****

In A Garland of Beauty, I use digital technologies to expand the remit of the dramatic tableau through a reperformed and slowed down version of Judy Garland’s performance of I Could Go on Singing from the film of the same name.

Referencing the work the of Bill Viola and David Michalek, this film and dance seeks to challenge our concept of space and of place, using slow motion in particular as a way in which to focus the viewer on small-scale details and immerse them in the emotional and political contents of the picture.

Viola’s quintet explores grief, personal suffering, and bereavement focusing on the unfolding expressions of five actors in slow motion.

Michalek’s Portraits in Dramatic Time similarly harnesses slow motion capture. According to Michalek: “The cameras were fixed, and the live action was recorded for duration of 10 – 15 seconds depending on the scene. Within these constraints, dramatic narratives were condensed down to an essence, [with] Each scene-sequence of drama was crafted to provide a physical metaphor for an emotional condition.”

Rather than pitting analogue and digital technologies against one another, each of these performances use digital technology to focus the viewer’s attention and engage them in a slower process of spectatorship, inverting the more common definition of slow media.

In A Garland of Beauty, the relationship between slow and fast and analogue and digital is complicated through queer performance. By reinscribing Judy Garland’s performance on the male body, the screendance not only queers the Garland original but perceptions of digital and physical spaces and well as private and public spaces. Indeed, A Garland of Beauty activates a new understanding of LGBTQ identity by blurring the personal and the political through the public sharing of the home movie. As Christopher Pullen states in his work on gay identity and new storytelling, “the emerging context of “online” new media, and its potential to bring audiences together, [provides] new connectivities for emerging self-reflexive [and LGBTQ] storytellers”.[9] 

This film attempts to articulate some of the dichotomies that surround discussions of slow media and digital storytelling. The next phase of this project will consist of a series of re-performances of the Garland number in a range of different spaces, particularly those that have heteronormative or masculine associations. The aim here is to blur the boundaries between both the physical and the digital and between the heteronormative and the queer.

REFERENCES

[1] ‘La jolie élégie! Le charmant poème!…Mais, petite, votre douleur est bien profonde, bien réfléchie! Que signifie cet air rêveur et mélancolique! Quoi! pour un oiseau! Vous ne pleurez pas, vous êtes affligée; et la pensée accompagne votre affliction[…] Ce matin-là, par malheur votre mère était absente. Il vint; vous étiez seule: il était si beau, si passionné, si tender, si charmant! il avait tant d’amour dans les yeux! tant de vérité dans les expressions! il desait de ces mots qui vont si droit à l’âme!’ In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p.533-534, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 236-237.

[2] See Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994) p. 533-537, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 236-240.

[3] On Diderot’s theory of the dramatic tableau see Daniel Brewer, The Discourse of Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France:  Diderot and the Art of Philosophizing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Jay Caplan, Framed Narratives: Diderot’s Genealogy of the Beholder, Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 19 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), Tili Boon Cuillé, Narrative Interludes: Musical Tableaux in Eighteenth-Century Texts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), Jack Undank and Herbert Josephs, ed., Diderot Digression and Dispersion: A Bicentenial Tribute (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum Publishers, 1984) and Peter Szondi, ‘Tableau and Coup de Théâtre: On the Social Psychology of Diderot’s Bourgeois Tragedy’, New Literary History, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p. 323-343.

[4] ‘Un incident imprévu qui se passe en action, et qui change subitement l’état des personages, est un coup de théâtre. Une disposition de ce personages sur la scène, si naturelle et si vraie, que, rendue fidèlement par un peintre, elle me plairait sur la toile, est un tableau’. In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p. 88, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 12.

[5] ‘Je pense, pour moi, que si un ouvrage dramatique était bien fait et bien représenté, la scène offrirait au spectateur autant de tableaux réels qu’il y aurait dans l’action de moments favorables au peintre’. In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p. 90, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 13.

[6] ‘Quoi donc, pourrait-il y avoir rien de trop véhément dans l’action d’une mère don’t on immole la fille? Qu’elle coure sur la scène comme une femme furieuse ou troublée; qu’elle remplisse de cris son palais; que le désordre ait passé jusque dans ses vêtements, ces choses conviennent à son désespoir. Si la mère d’Iphigénie se montrait un moment reine d’Argos et femme du général des Grecs, elle ne me paraîtrait que la dernière des créatures. La véritable dignité, celle qui me frappe, qui me renverse, c’est le tableau de l’amour maternel dans toute sa vérité’. In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p. 90-91, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994) p. 13.

[7] Michael Hays, ‘Drama and Dramatic Theory: Peter Szondi and the Modern Theatre’, bondary 2, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1983), p. 73.

[8] Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[9] Christopher Pullen, Gay Identity, New Storytelling and the Media (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 231.

Creative Projects

The Fairytale of New York: Some thoughts on Homophobia and Heteronormative Christmas Soundscapes

Something has been playing on my mind lately and I wanted to explore my thoughts, which are by no means conclusive, here (and welcome comments and discussion). What started me thinking was the how in December our sonic surroundings or soundscape drastically change. Christmas songs fill the air and can be heard almost everywhere we go: supermarkets, shopping centres, pubs and restaurants. They are heard on the radio and frequently on television as well as the theatre and in karaoke bars. One of those songs played and performed regularly in the UK is The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, a powerful Christmas favourite that was released in 1988.

The line I want to discuss was a line that was the subject of much controversy at the time of release: “You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot”. Whilst originally the BBC edited versions of the song and removed the term (as well as the term “slut” in the proceeding line), the controversy is now long past – for some forgotten, for others unknown – and since 2007 the song now played by the BBC in its original version. The BBC argued in this case that:

“While we would never condone prejudice of any kind, we know our audiences are smart enough to distinguish between maliciousness and creative freedom. In the context of this song, I do not feel that there is any negative intent behind the use of the words, hence the reversal of the decision.”

I find the use of the term ‘I’ here particularly telling and dangerous. What concerns and interests me more though is that since 1988 the song has become increasingly institutionalised, a seemingly integral part of the Christmas soundscape. This means that the homophobic slur of the song (and by proxy homophobia?) now forms a regular part of my Christmas and has since I was 7. I don’t think we can ignore the effect persisitant (and uncritical) homophobic language has on LGBTQ audiences, and on those in particular who are coming to terms with their sexuality.

My aim here isn’t to put an argument forward for censorship (which only leads to social amnesia and a turning away from difficult issues), but to open up a debate on the relationship between aesthetics, creative freedom identity, and ethics, particularly when an aesthetic object, art practice, or cultural tradition becomes institutionalised and runs in danger or oppressing minority groups and reinstating white, masculine, heterosexual hierarchies. Indeed, this isn’t an attack on the song per se, but the (uncritical) legacy of that song. So what, if anything, should be done?*

I recently read an article that drew my attention to the fact that the Tom and Jerry cartoon series available on Amazon Prime are now accompanied by a statement that highlights the racist nature of some of these cartoons. While this I don’t think provides a satisfactory solution, it does draw the viewer’s attention to the issue and potentially generates discussion, which is better than these cartoons being screened without comments.

So, is an equivalent strategy needed for The Fairytale of New York? Should listeners be informed and warned of the homophobic and misogynistic language? Should the song be played (without edit) by publicly funded corporations and should it form part of an institutionalised christmas landscape if it is played without comment? To what extent are we willing to privilege aesthetics and heritage over and above equality? And what other areas do we need to think more deeply about this issue? Indeed, this is something that goes far beyond the gay community when we think about institutionlised narratives of “normativity”.

Perhaps an alternative solution lies with balance in what we hear at this time of year. Do we need to work harder at ensuring that there opportunities to hear, see, and engage with works that challenge heteronormativity, works frequently hidden from view? And on that note, I’ll leave you with a celebratory LGBTQ christmas song by Bourgeois and Maurice and Sink the Pink. Enjoy.

*It is perhaps worth saying that I like and enjoy the song, but I find it’s performance and legacy problematic.

Creative Projects, Papers

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”: a Dystopia Dialogue with Judy Garland

I recently returned from the conference The Wizard of Oz and the Cultural Imagination which was held at the University of Brighton, 21-22 November 2013. It was an interdisciplinary conference with a wide array of papers. For the conference, I decided to give a performative paper – my first. Was quite nervewraking, but got some great reactions and feedback so I thought I’d share a mobile video of the performance and the slides. It gives an idea of the presentation, but perhaps not the feeling. I welcome any comments, reactions, and thoughts.

Creative Projects

A Research Poem: (Dis)Connection

My recent research and work on the research excellence framework has prompted me to explore some of my research questions and findings creatively. By expressing ideas in new and engaging ways, I believe there is the opportunity to bring new audiences to research and with them new questions, ideas and problems.

I said a while back on Twitter that I wanted to experiment with writing creatively, something that I have never been overly confident with. Below is my first attempt: a poem that is based on some of my more recent research. I’d welcome any thoughts, comments and/or reactions.

(Dis)Connection

Staring through the looking glass,
Hard, cold, flat
I feel nothing.
No texture, no roughness, no depth.
A crack – in the corner…
I touch it, carefully, so that I can feel.

Watching, looking,
I will spend my life here
Watching those that I think I know,
Following each move, each gesture.
Just watching.
I cannot join them; no,
They cannot hear me, they cannot see me,
For I am here on the other side,
Behind the glass.
Hard, cold, flat.

I turn away. I am with you.

Creative Projects

Playlist: An Introduction to Étienne Nicolas Méhul

As part of my recent project on Méhul’s overture to Le Trésor Supposé (which consists of a preface for MusikProduktionblog, and essay), I thought it might be interesting to explore the educational potential of the playlist. The playlist below functions in the manner of a “taster CD”, introducing some of Méhul’s works (for which recordings are available on Spotify) that I think capture 1) his interest in music as an expressive and dramatic medium 2) his experimentation with musical sounds and forms and 3) his desire to communicate literary ideas, actions, and characters through music.

Although originally I intended to accompany each track with only a few short sentences, it proved to be an interesting and difficult challenge to justify the selections and set them in the broader context of Méhul’s oeuvre. I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on the tracks, my comments, and on the idea of a playlist having an educational or pedagogical function.

The details of the playlist and text can be found below and the playlist accessed via Sharemyplaylists.com by clicking here, or the button below:

1) Thomas Beecham – Le Trésor Supposé: Overture

As this overture formed the basis of this project I felt that it should introduce the playlist. A detailed exploration of the music can be found in my accompanying essay, although I think from listening to the overture alone the drama of the opera comes across: such as the opposition between the lovers and the authoritarian figure of Géronte and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of comedy. The unusual and unexpected musical turns tease the listener, playing with their musical expectations of the work, adding an element of mischief and humour.

2) William Christie – Stratonice: “Ciel! ne sois point inexorable” [Chorus]

There is something beautiful about the simplicity of opening chorus to Méhul’s Stratonice. The chorus clearly harks back to those of Gluck, the simple melodic structure and colourful harmonies providing a sombre and melancholic tone. The chromatic figures in the violins that begin about 42 seconds into this recording disturb the otherwise calm texture and add an element of tension, perhaps even suspense. The harmonic clash between the violins and the voice furnishes the passage with a tension that to my mind pre-empts musically the tension that lies at the heart of the opera between father and son, both of whom have fallen in love with the same woman.

3) Werner Ehrhardt – L’irato, ou L’emporte: Quartet: “O ciel, que faire” [Isabelle, Nerine, Lysandre, Scapin]

L’Irato was written at about the same time as Le Trésor Supposé and is similar in both plot and musical style. It received its first performance at the Théâtre Favart on 17 February 1801, a year before Le Trésor Supposé. This quartet forms the dramatic centre point of the opera. The quartet follows on from Lysandre revelation that Isabelle’s uncle is planning for her to marry her tutor, Balouard. Isabelle, who is deeply in love with Lysandre, is deeply upset by the news. Her horror is, however, somewhat mollified during the quartet as Scapin, Lysandre’s servant, reveals a plot to stop Pandolphe’s (Isabelle’s uncle) plan going ahead. The change in the dramatic situation is made evident in the music, the dramatic exclamations that open the quartet being replaced by music that has an almost mischievous tone. The question and answer pattern between Scapin and the other characters at a low volume suggesting the unveiling of a secret plan.

4) Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra – Symphony No. 1 in G Minor: Menuetto

I particularly like Méhul’s effective use of orchestral timbre and dynamics in this movement to his First Symphony in G minor. The move from a quiet pizzicato (short, plucked notes) in the strings to a more lyrical and smooth melody for full orchestra I think gives the movement a particularly dramatic and dynamic trajectory. The disjointed melody has an almost magical quality and reminds me of the opening bars to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Nights Dream overture (which was written some eighteen years later).

5) William Christie – Stratonice: “Parlez. Achevez de m’apprendre” [Erasistrate, Antiochus]

This emotionally charged duet has, as Elizabeth M. Bartlet notes, ‘the serious tone of the tragédie lyrique’.[1] The duet comes at a key point in the opera: Erasistrate’s discovery that Antiochus’ illness is the result of his secret love for his father’s fiancée. Méhul adds to the dramatic tension by writing music that becomes increasingly fraught. At first, the two characters take turns to sing extended passages, but as the duet proceeds, the exchanges becoming shorter and increasingly frequent, culminating in an overlapping of the voices and a powerful finale. Although not included here, the music that follows develops this tension further, the duet becoming a trio as the King arrives and finally a tremendous quartet with the appearance of Stratonice, the love of both the King and the Prince.

6) Roberto Alagna – Joseph: “Vainement Pharaon dans sa reconnaissance Champs paternels” [Joseph]

Joseph was one on Méhul’s most popular operas. For Berlioz, this opera was “simple, touching, rich in felicitous, though not very daring modulations, full of broad and vibrant harmonies and graceful figures in the accompaniment”.[2] This track, sung by Alagna, is one of the most moving arias in the opera. Although in this aria we hear Méhul at his most lyrical, emphasised by Alagna’s performance, the music is never detached from the meaning of the text. Of particular interest in terms of musical drama is the musical accompaniment; Méhul choosing not to write a simple and unobtrusive accompaniment, but one that holds it own. The orchestra adds to the musical drama of the aria, it becoming stronger and more ‘vocal’ as the aria progresses.

7) Werner Ehrhardt – L’irato, ou L’emporte: “Femme jolie et du bon vin” [Balouard, Lysandre, Scapin]

Songs on the topic of wine and women were a commonplace in both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opera. This track from L’irato comes at the point in the opera where Scapin encourages the rivals Lysandre and Balouard to drown their sorrows. The trio is particular interesting as it is written in a way that gives the spectator the impression that the song is not just another operatic aria, but a song the stems from the “real” world of the opera. In effect, Méhul writes a drinking song that may have well been heard in any eighteenth-century tavern. (There is also a notable similarity to the tone of this number and that of the many Revolutionary songs that had become popular in the 1790s – see track 10). The clinking of glasses audible in this recording heightens the sense of realism provided by the music, blurring the boundaries between sound and music. Another interesting music effect occurs at about two minutes thirty in to the track when a rather melodically decorative passage is introduced for all three singers. This passage, though, isn’t intended to demonstrate the virtuosic capabilities of the singers, but show uncontrolled excess. This is an example of communal, drunken singing, something made evident later in the passage when the music begins to lose its sense of harmonic direction, drunkenly wandering off course. I also like the effect at 4 minutes in where the music builds towards a finale, but wanders off course, lurching in another direction before the trio is brought to its official close.

8) The Gulbenkian Orchestra – Symphony No. 3 in C Major: Andante

The C major symphony is for the large part a tort and densely worked exercise in motivic development, and the slow movement here is no exception. There is, for me, something extraordinary beautiful about this movement. Despite the lyrical nature of the movement, it appears to have no single, complete melody. The movement seems to present the listener with search for identity, the orchestra constantly searching for a theme. Musical ideas go from one instrument to another across the entire orchestra, but no single instrument or section dominates the texture. In my opinion, the movement feels uneasy, presenting a much darker musical terrain that was perhaps standard for slow movements of the time. In a way, the movement has a romantic edge, the tone of a Beethovenian scherzo, but one tempered by the style of an andante.

9) William Christie – Stratonice: “Quelle funeste envie!” [Séleucus] “Ah! gardez vos trésors” [Antiochus]

This dramatically charged duet has an unusually restrained and balanced quality, harking back to the arias of Gluck. Although this duet lacks the progressively experimental tone of some of Méhul’s other works, this is a beautiful example of Méhul’s ability to write lyrical and melodic music.

10) Armand Mestral – Le chant du depart: “La victoire en chantant” [M.J. Chénier – E.N. Méhul]

This track stands in stark contrast to the other pieces included here and is an example of one of Méhul’s French Revolutionary songs. These politically fuelled songs capture the essence of this turbulent historical period, and Méhul songs in particular were incredibly popular with sheet music selling in the thousands. This song has a fiercely republican text, which is emphasised by Méhul through the regular phrasing and catchy tune, perfect for encouraging communal singing and capturing the Revolutionary spirit.

11) Werner Ehrhardt – L’irato, ou L’emporte: “Si je perdais mon Isabelle” [Lysandre]

Intentionally standing in stark contrast to the previous track, this aria returns us to the world of opéra comique. Here we see Lysandre alone and in a desperate state, bemoaning the fact he is not going to be able to marry his love Isabelle. Particularly effective in this aria is the interplay of spoken word and music. Rare in opera, spoken word was a defining feature of opéra comique. As well as provide a quick way of explaining the plot and off-stage action, the interplay between spoken word and music could also be employed as an effective dramatic device. Here, the dynamic perfectly captures Lysandre’s emotional state, the constant moving between text and music a reflection of his unstable state of mind.

12) The Gulbenkian Orchestra – Overture: Young Henry’s Hunt

This is perhaps Méhul’s most performed work. The overture, which was originally intended to introduce an opera based the life of King Henri of France, is a lively romp full of both humour and character. Particularly effective is Méhul’s juxtaposition of the pastoral (epitomised by the lyrical strings) and the King’s hunt, depicted by raucous horns. The interplay of the two themes furnishes the overture with an almost pictorial quality that seems to capture (in comic fashion) the eighteenth-century interest in the relationship between man and nature.

13) William Christie –Stratonice: “Insensé, je forme des souhaits” [Antiochus]

This aria comes towards the end of the opera and sees Antiochus in utter despair, begging for Death to release him from his misery. From the very beginning, Antiochus’ pain is made audible, a harsh dissonance created between his first note and the chord presented by the orchestra. Although beautifully melodic, the air still has a declamatory nature, Méhul experimenting with musical lyricism and the natural rhythm of speech. Also of interest here is Méhul’s effective use of the orchestra, Bartlet identifying in particularly the effective and unusual use of the upper woodwind and tenor instruments such as the viola, bassoon, and cello.[3]

14) Werner Ehrhardt – L’irato, ou L’emporte: “Ah, mon cher Oncle – Maitre” [Isabelle, Nerine, Lysandre, Balouard, Scapin]

The finale to L’irato is interesting primarily because of the way it incorporates a range of music styles to support the fast-paced drama of the final scene. Opening with music that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Gluck’s tragic operas, the music soon adopts a comic tone. This is followed by a lyrical and emotive passage sung by Lysandre as he sings of his love for Isabelle. A march-like passage follows for Pandolphe that has a tone similar to that of a French Revolutionary song before the listener is once again returned to musical world of comedy, which concludes with a grand and triumphant finale.

15) Chin-Ming Lin – La Chasse Du Jeune Henri: Overture (arr. Gottschalk for 3 pianos, 10-hands, orchestra, RO 54b)

This is not a work by Méhul, but a work inspired by his overture La Chasse Du Jeune Henri. I thought it made a suitable end to this playlist as it allows us to hear Méhul from a fresh perspective. Gottschalk’s 1849 (revised again in 1861 with the addition of pianos) re-imagining of the work places Méhul in a more modern, nineteenth-century context. The effective orchestration and manipulation of the original score gives the overture a fresh feel. The use of piano is particularly effective (especially for the mid-1800s), the pianos creeping in almost unnoticed half way through the piece before taking centre stage.


[1] M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, ‘Etienne Nicolas Mehul and opera during the French Revolution, Consulate, and Empire : a source, archival and stylistic study’ (University of Chicago, 1982), p. 1045.

[2] Hector Berlioz, Evening with the Orchestra, edited and translated by Jaques Barzun(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999), p.353.

[3] M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, ‘Etienne Nicolas Mehul and opera during the French Revolution, Consulate, and Empire : a source, archival and stylistic study’ (University of Chicago, 1982), p. 1094.