John Adams / February 15, 1947
The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra
The improbability of anti-communist President Richard Nixon’s diplomatic initiative in 1972 to establish a relationship with Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Red China caused opera Director Peter Sellars to suggest to John Adams in 1985 that they write an opera about it. At first, they were not sure whether Nixon’s trip to China should be portrayed satirically as “a ridiculously cynical election ploy” or an historical breakthrough. In the end, they decided to tell the story as heroic, to be entitled Nixon in China.
The Chairman Dances – by the way, “dances” is verb, not a noun – came about as a byproduct of Adams’s work on the opera. As Adams explained, it is “an out-take of Act III of Nixon in China. Neither an excerpt nor a fantasy on themes from, it was in fact a kind of warmup for embarking on the creation of the full opera. At the time, 1985, I was obliged to fulfill a long-delayed commission for the Milwaukee Symphony, but having already seen the scenario to Act III of Nixon in China, I couldn’t wait to begin work on that piece. So The Chairman Dances began as a ‘foxtrot’ for Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled ‘Madame Mao,’ firebrand, revolutionary executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress.”
In 1999, Adams wrote an essay about The Chairman Dances and how it relates to Nixon in China: “In the surreal final scene of the opera, Madame Mao interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow moving protocol and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic forty-foot portrait on the wall, ‘to come down, old man, and dance.’ The music takes full cognizance of her past as a movie actress. Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at other times bravura and bounding, ride above in bustling fabric of energized motives. Some of these themes make a dreamy reappearance in Act III of the actual opera, en revenant, as both the Nixons and Maos reminisce over their distant pasts. A scenario by Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman, somewhat altered from the final one in Nixon in China, is as follows: ‘Chiang Ch’ing, a.k.a. Madame Mao, has gatecrashed the Presidential Banquet. She is first seen standing where she is most in the way of the waiters. After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle and slit up the hip. She signals the orchestra to play and begins dancing by herself. Mao is becoming excited. He steps down from his portrait on the wall, and they begin to foxtrot together. They are back in Yenan, dancing to the gramophone….”
So fire up your special effects imagination and watch slinky Madame Mao, previously a B-movie Queen in China, as she dances a foxtrot with the ruthless founder of the People’s Republic of China and the toxic Cultural Revolution.
Béla Bartók / March 25, 1881 – September 26, 1945
Concerto for Orchestra
By the early years of the 20th Century, however, Romanticism had run its course, burned out. Thus, composers began to search for new musical styles, sounds, and vocabulary suitable for their Age. As Bartók put it, “The excesses of the Romantics began to be unbearable, but where to turn?”
Born in Hungary in 1881, Bartók was schooled as a child in the prevailing musical aesthetics, but in 1905 he discovered the extraordinary treasure trove of unique and exciting folk music in his own country. This folk music was technically complex, challenging, rugged, exciting, and suffused with an unmatched vitality. Bartók called its expressive power “amazing,” devoid of sentimentality and superfluous ornamentation. Realizing he had found an inspirational musical motherlode, Bartók acquired an early Edison voice recorder and enthusiastically set out on an eight-year journey to record and to learn as much about it as he could, becoming the world’s foremost ethnomusicologist. As a composer, he proceeded to assimilate the unique essence of Hungarian folk music and to transmute it into universal material for the concert stage. Stylistically and sonically, his resulting music has little in common with any previous style of composing.
As Bartók pursued this path, however, he ran headlong into fascism and the Nazis, political philosophies he detested. After he watched what Hitler did to Austria in 1938, he feared Hungary would be next, and in 1940, he fled to New York City. In a letter to a friend, he described the Nazis as “a system of robbery and murder.”
Hungarian folk music and the effect of being uprooted from his home at the age of 59 color much of Bartók’s 1944 Concerto for Orchestra. Because it is so deliciously different from the music of previous centuries, we must listen to it with different ears. His athletic angular melodies are not Tchaikovsky’s, and his harmonies are not Rachmaninoff’s. Bartók does not write in sentences or paragraphs, but in atmospheric canvases and soundscapes, which express the rugged and vital rhythmic and melodic qualities he found in the backcountry of his homeland. It sounds different because it is, and wonderfully so.
Bartók wrote a program note for the premiere of this piece in Boston. He said, “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-affirmation of the finale. The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is derived from its tendency to treat the single instruments in a soloistic manner.” To perform it right takes an orchestra of all-stars.
The first of the five movements begins with unmistakable longing, the forlorn song of a man dispossessed of his roots. The flutes, with melodies and rhythms distilled from Hungarian folk music, do their best to call him back from despair, only to be met with intense anguished cries.
The second movement, entitled Presentation of the Pairs, called “jesting” by the composer, is a brilliant journey into the exquisite land of new and unconventional instrumental colors. First up are the bassoons playing a jaunty tune in exotic harmonic intervals of a minor 6th, follow by two oboes in minor 3rds, clarinets in minor 7ths, flutes in perfect 5ths, and muted trumpets in major 2nds. The harmonic intervals we are accustomed to in earlier music are nowhere to be found. You don’t need to know what they are called, just soak them in. Noah might not recognize them, but they certainly add iridescence to our musical Ark. After the pairs show their colors, an elegant brass chorale intervenes to set the stage for the return of the pairs in new intriguing sonic garb.
Movement three carries the title Elegy. This is Bartók’s dark “death-song,” his heartfelt lament for a world plunged by madmen into cataclysmic war.
Movement four has a strange title: Intermezzo Interrotto, or interrupted intermezzo. It begins with a carefree folk-like theme followed by a warm melody led by the violas. All of a sudden the clarinet interrupts the flow and turns the movement into a grotesque march, greeted by unmistakable razberries from the trombones, and accentuated by angry percussion and hysterical instrumental laughter. Just as unexpectedly, the music reverts to the violas’ opulent theme, and the movement proceeds, only to be “interrupted” again by circus music and cacophony. Undaunted the violas return, and the movement proceeds to its conclusion. Okay, what was that all about? Bartók’s son tells us the music is a mocking parody of the march in Shostakovich’s popular Seventh Symphony, Leningrad, a symphony Bartók believed was overdone and ripe for a musical cartoon. Amazing! Now you know “the surprising rest of the story.”
Bartók’s finale is energetic, bursting with vitality, and optimistic. Do better times lie ahead? Unfortunately not, Bartók wrote this piece while he was dying of leukemia. His friend, the legendary conductor, Serge Koussevitzky presented him with a commission to compose it, not being sure he would last long enough to do so. The money for the commission was intended to cover Bartók’s mounting medical expenses. With the creative juices flowing again, however, Bartók miraculously rose to the occasion with this magnum opus. Sadly, he died nine months later. Thus, this work gave its composer a new lease on life, at least long enough to leave us a great gift.