I wish now to speak energetically on a subject about which no one cares:  the opera paraphrase.

The opera paraphrase, for those who don’t know, is an obsolete classical musical genre in which themes and passages from opera scores are ripped from their dramatic context and transcribed for other instruments (usually piano) for concert performance. They are more often, though somewhat inaccurately, called transcriptions. “Obsolete” might appear redundant when speaking of any classical music genre. But it is especially apt in the case of the paraphrase.

Paraphrases are obsolete not because few people today listen to opera; they are obsolete because they belong to a bastard genre–“bastard” because, as musicologists have long sniffed, those who wrote paraphrases were not writing original music of their own, but rather “paraphrasing” the works of others. They are pastiches, cut and paste excerpts of others’ creations.

It is not only that they are theft that has brought them into disrepute, however.  There is, after all, hardly a great composer who is not guilty of such theft–the polite term is “quotation.” But paraphrases are not the great and audacious theft that characterizes the greatest thieves and quoters.  They are more akin to petty larceny, or–to pile metaphor upon metaphor–grave robbery followed by Frankensteinism.

This can be traced to their raison d’etre. Written before recordings of operas were available, they were a way of making popular opera themes available to audiences in concert halls and private homes. If opera was already a popular genre, opera paraphrases were the greatest hits of the greatest hits.  Worse, they were frequently intended as show pieces for virtuoso performers, designed to reliably bring down the house.  These were not considerations to foster restraint.

Everything about them rubs music critics the wrong way.  If the classical purist is like a diner at a three michelin star restaurant expecting beef wellington, the opera paraphrase is a corndog with a side of cotton candy.

And yet, they are often lovely.

My favorite opera paraphrases are by Liszt, who wrote dozens of them.  I am not even certain how many.  The Dover series has reprinted two volumes of sheet music of them–one of Italian opera, one of Wagner’s works. And the complete recordings of Liszt by Leslie Howard contains six volumes (of two discs each).

That the music should have continued to find a certain audience is perhaps not altogether surprising.  Pianists have always loved them, as they have always loved Liszt, regardless of his fluctuating fortunes with the critics.

They love them in part because many of them contain flights of bravura technical pageantry. Indeed, Liszt himself clearly relished the “demonic” possibilities of the Faust theme which he revisited time and time again, writing music of diabolical technical abandon.  Earl Wilde’s performance of Robert the Devil (not Gounod but Meyerbeer) is a fair sample:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fp2O-dU2mhk

Fun as these may be to hear and to play, however, it is not the demonic Liszt that I love but Liszt the Romantic, seas of seventh chords and all.  One of my very favorite pieces of his is the Rigoletto paraphrase, here performed by the superb Australian pianist, Geoffrey Tozer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZDiMTExfUw.

The piece’s musical value has sometimes been disputed.  No less a pianist–and ardent defender of Liszt–than Claudio Arrau once remarked (I think in his interviews with Joseph Horowitz) that he thought there was no good musical reason for the work to be performed publicly today.  It is, all the same, an astonishingly beautiful work, one I would far rather listen to than its source material, and certainly than the critically more favored B minor sonata.

Some of the criticism regarding the musical value of these pieces is fair, and not all of them, it has to be said, equally display Liszt’s superb grasp of pianistic textures. But even here one runs the risk of dismissing artistry and masterwork.

A case in point is the Don Juan Fantasy–a paraphrase of the Mozart opera Don Giovanni–which as Charles Rosen (no slouch either as pianist or musicologist) has shown, reveals subtle inter connections in Mozart’s own writing.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlBYflI8dLM

It has often been said that Liszt’s reputation would stand higher if he had destroyed some of his astonishingly voluminous output. I am glad that he did not.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eisDlPuvCQo

Advertisements