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Life During Wartime: a new program from Cantata Profana

New Haven Review
By Donald Brown

Last spring, I was quite impressed by members of Cantata Profana in performance of the challenging score of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in a dramatic staging of that work directed by Ethan Heard at Yale Cabaret. This weekend, Cantata Profana is back with a new program, “The Rest of the World at War: Germany—America—1942,” which their press release describes as “both a deep reflection on the War and a comedy show for music nerds.”

Artistic Director Jacob Ashworth says that the idea for the program began with the Richard Strauss sextet that opens his last opera Capriccio. Written in 1942, in wartime Berlin, the work is striking, as Ashworth sees it, for its lack of engagement with a world at war. Six characters in a salon debate “which is more important in opera: music or words.” The opera's opening is “decadent and irresponsible,” Ashworth says, “for someone in such a highly influential position.” In his 70s, Strauss seems to have chosen to detach his music from any real world relevance. Praising the work as “stunningly beautiful,” Ashworth wanted to find companion pieces that would help create an artistic and historical context for Strauss’ preference for aesthetic contemplation over engagement with the times.

Last year Cantata Profana performed a program as a centennial celebration for works composed in 1913. Though 1942, as a year, is not as directly related to 2014, Ashworth chose other works from the period when the U.S. entered the war as companion pieces with the Capriccio sextet. Bookending the program is a work by the avant-garde composer Arthur Schoenberg who, in 1942, was 10 years younger than Strauss when he wrote Ode to Napoleon, a work which uses lines from a poem written by Lord Byron in 1814 to characterize the fall of the world-dominating “tyrant,” and references Austria—later, the birthplace of Hitler—while addressing Napoleon in an interesting fashion: “Must she too bend, must she too share / Thy late repentance, long despair, / Thou throneless Homicide?”

Other works chosen for the program offer contrasts to the German romanticism and modernism of Strauss and Schoenberg. Elliott Carter, the long-lived American composer who died recently in 2012, at age 103, was influenced by Stravinsky and created avant-garde works but, Ashworth says, often forgotten are his earlier forays into Copland-like Americana such as The Defense of Corinth, a piece for a speaker, a male chorus and piano, four hands. The choral work is highly comedic, according to Ashworth, in its evocation of the preparations for war by the town of Corinth, as described by Rabelais in the Prologue to Book III of Pantagruel. Carter’s score suggests the sound effects of martial preparations as well as the useless activity of the philosopher Diogenes who joins in the busy activities by engaging in the Sisyphean labor of repeatedly hauling an empty tub up a mountain and letting it clatter down. In 1941, when the piece was written, the U.S. had not yet entered the war and Carter’s piece could be a look askance at the war mania throughout the world or a prescient glance ahead to the war effort that would soon occupy the U.S. after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year.