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Opera and Ideas is a study of the connections between music and intellectual history. Through lucid analysis of six operas and two song cycles, Paul Robinson shows how operas give musical and dramatic expression to ideas about the self, society, and history.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780801494284
ISBN-10: 0801494281
Format: Paperback
(152mm x 235mm x 15mm)
Pages: 288
Imprint: Cornell University Press
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publish Date: 4-Sep-1986
Country of Publication: United States

Reviews

US Kirkus Review » In these five longish, uneven essays, Prof. Robinson (history, Stanford) sets out to demonstrate how eight great operas "engage the intellectual concerns of their day." Certainly on one would argue with Robinson's basic premise - that music is "part of Western civilization." (oddly, Robinson writes as if this is an original, startling notion.) But, though some of the commentary here is modestly illuminating, much of it seems strained, overstated, or superficial. An opening chapter contrasts Mozart's Figaro ("the musical embodiment" of the Enlightenment, all reason and reconciliation) with Rossini's colder, more farcical treatment of related material in Barber of Seville; Robinson fails, however, in his attempt to present the Barber as a thoroughgoing reflection of "the safe, cynical intellectual landscape of European conservatism" in the early 19th-century. (Throughout, Robinson ignores or downplays the importance of each composer's individual personality.) Far more convincing, if utterly unsurprising, is a close-up discussion of Schubert's song cycles Die schone Mullerin and Winterreise, which are shown to reflect "the unprecedented subjectivity of the Romantic movement"; Robinson has no trouble finding, musical parallels to Wordsworth and Byron - in Schubert's dreamy self-involvement, in the anxious, yearning harmonies, even in the relationship between piano (Nature) and singer (Man). And, despite a few contrived interpretations of vocal/orchestral detail, Robinson's view of Berlioz's The Trojans - as "a musical embodiment of the Hegelian idea of history" - is supported by solid analysis of the opera's dialectical themes: love and history. Less impressive are the two final chapters. An essay on Verdi's realpolitik in Don Carlo is on safe, reasonable ground when echoing the writings of Julian Budden and many others - but Robinson becomes pedantic when finding political meaning in such stylistic matters as Verdi's accompaniment figures and his writing for strong mezzo-sopranos. (Eboli and Amneris are "politicians manque.") Likewise, a comparison between two "operas of romantic sacrifices" - Die Meistersinger ("about society") and Der Rosenkavalier ("about the self") - is sturdy enough on the individual operas; but there's strain and over-simplification in offering Wagner and Strauss as paradigms of their respective eras. The best writers on opera have always included intellectual/political backgrounds in their analyses. Robinson breaks no real new ground, then, and never approaches the depth or eloquence of a Joseph Kerman (Opera as Drama). But there's enough intelligence and erudition here to balance the narrow viewpoint and overreaching connections. (Kirkus Reviews)


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