Monday 20 August 2018

Munich and Rome: cities in a league of their own

Fate: Wagner may have finished his career in Munich but for an affair with the wife of his conductor
Fate: Wagner may have finished his career in Munich but for an affair with the wife of his conductor

George Hamilton

The Champions League semi-final draw could not have been more kind to me. Munich this week, Rome next, two cities that live and breathe - among many other things - classical music.

Munich's history goes back a long way. In the 16th century, Orlando de Lassus, who would become the most prolific composer of the late Renaissance, was hired as a court singer. Before him, there was Ludwig Senfl, a Swiss musician renowned for writing church music for Martin Luther.

Later, Munich would become an important outlet for Mozart - his opera La Finta Giardiniera was commissioned for the city's carnival in 1775. Six years later, he was back with another new work - Idomeneo.

Richard Wagner may be remembered for the revolutionary ideas about musical drama that propelled him to prominence late in his life, with the annual festival in his opera house in Bayreuth his enduring legacy, but it might never have come to that without an intervention from Munich.

Wagner, in his fifties and on his uppers, was in desperate need of a new start when Louis II ascended the throne of Bavaria. The eccentric teenager - he was only 18, and would eventually become known as Mad King Ludwig - was a great fan of the composer.

He brought him to Munich and funded him there. Tristan, Die Meistersinger, Das Rheingold, and Die Walküre were all premiered in the city. Wagner might well have concluded his career there had he not embarked on an affair with the wife of his conductor.

Cosima von Bülow was the daughter of Franz Liszt. She would eventually marry Wagner, but the bad taste, coupled with the composer's profligate lifestyle and his unwelcome interference in matters political, combined to persuade him that he'd be better off elsewhere, hence his move to Bayreuth.

In Rome, Palestrina was prominent when de Lassus was making his mark in Munich. Corelli followed.

By the 19th century, Rome was centre stage as an outlet for musical drama, and there were plenty of first nights to be enjoyed - Verdi's La Battaglia di Legnano, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana.

And Rossini's Barber of Seville, which had its first outing in the Teatro Argentina, and was not without its moments.

Rossini had been engaged, much as Mozart was in Munich, to come up with a pre-Lent entertainment. He went for Figaro, the character created by the French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, who'd inspired the original Barber of Seville, an opera by Giovanni Paisiello. Mozart's Marriage of Figaro was conceived as a sequel.

Rossini felt he could mine the earlier part of the story successfully. In just two weeks, he'd composed his Barber. He called it Almaviva, or The Useless Precaution, to distinguish it from Paisiello's version.

But he hadn't reckoned with the fury of the Paisiello fans, annoyed that this young upstart - Rossini was just about to turn 24 - would produce something that would steal their man's glory.

One critic noted: "All the whistlers of Italy seemed to have made a rendezvous at the Teatro Argentina." They weren't impressed, either, when a serenade had to be put on hold because the singer had forgotten to tune his guitar, and when he began to do so, one of the strings broke.

Still, despite the bedlam of the opening night, the run continued, and in no time, Rossini's Barber had won them over.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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