By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Bluebeard!, performed on April 25, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
One of the only truly genuine twentieth-century prodigy composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, took pride in his originality, particularly during his years as a composer for the movies. Many of his successful colleagues in that genre stole shamelessly from the masters of great music. In a moment of rare candor, however, Korngold is reputed to have confided to a friend that many of the ideas in his best music were borrowed from Paul Dukas’s only opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Korngold’s admiration for Dukas’s opera was by no means unique. Richard Strauss, generally not an admirer of the French tradition of composition, singled out Dukas for particular praise. The opera was also held in high regard by Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky, and more recently found one of its most ardent defenders in Dukas’s pupil, Olivier Messiaen.
Why, then, is this opera so rarely performed either in concert version or on the stage? It enjoyed a fabulous start, including an American premiere performance by Arturo Toscanini with Geraldine Ferrar at the Metropolitan Opera. We always want to believe that the standard repertory reflects the enduring best of music. If something is not standard and popular, we often assume that there must be a good reason. But that is frequently not the case. The truth is that in the performing arts, particularly music, what remains in the standard repertoire is the result of habits and tastes that have as much to do with convenience and prejudice as with anything we might call quality. If we listen to Ariane, we might have difficulty in finding enough fault with either the music or the libretto of this masterpiece to warrant its disappearance from the stage. The libretto was written intentionally for music and it is not only by a major literary figure (the author of Pelléas et Mélisande) but it also presents a view of the Bluebeard story that ought to make it particularly pertinent to late twentieth-century audiences. In this version, the woman triumphs and much of the opera presents a powerful portrait of an attempt at convincing other women to liberate themselves. In the end Ariane fails, and that in itself gives the opera a level of psychological subtlety that should propel it onto the contemporary stage.
The word masterpiece in relationship to Ariane et Barbe-bleue is used deliberately, in part because Paul Dukas rivaled Johannes Brahms in his puritanical self-criticism. Far fewer works by this composer survive than were written. He felt about his music as Gogol did about the sequel to Dead Souls, and many of Dukas’s compositions suffered the same fate. As a result, however, what remains of Dukas’s work are pieces that are nearly flawless in their construction and refinement. Yet if one asks the average listener what Dukas wrote, one will invariably hear one title: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897), and this most likely because it was appropriated into the same genre in which Korngold excelled–it became part of the film score for Disney’s Fantasia.
If contemporary audiences had more opportunity to hear Dukas’s C-Major Symphony (1896), or his early works for chorus and orchestra (which remain unpublished), or La Peri (1912), the ballet which may have been Dukas’s most successful work for the stage, they might be aware of Dukas as more than the musical support for a rather emotive mouse. Dukas’s posthumous reputation has also not been helped by the politics of French and European music. For instance, Dukas was born from a partly Jewish ancestry, and was not helped by the fact that one of the most powerful forces in late nineteenth-century French music was Vincent d’Indy, who, despite a nominal friendship with Dukas, was known to be as widely a propagator of virulent anti-Semitism as Richard Wagner. Furthermore, Dukas was exceptional in his complete lack of interest in his self-promotion. He was a taciturn and extremely private individual who married late in life (at age fifty-one) and fell largely silent as a composer in his later years. Unlike Strauss, Dukas felt no urge to be polemical by writing music in a manner that was provocatively out of step with the contemporary.
Despite the subtlety and profundity of its musical symbolism and the psychological depth of its rendition of the traditional story, Ariane et Barbe-bleue may have been relegated to obscurity because of unintentional competition from two other nearly contemporary works, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). This conjecture is all the more disturbing when one considers it in context with the other fantastic riches in the operatic repertoire that await revival from the late nineteenth century, particularly in French music. Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus (1895), Fauré’s Penelope (1913), and the operas of Magnard and d’Indy also remain in the shadows. But when one hears the beauties of this score, the powerful representation of its characters’ tangled lives, and the masterful orchestration, the comparison should not be with other works that have fallen out of the repertory but with those that remain. The American Symphony Orchestra is proud to be able to present a twentieth-century masterpiece by a composer whose command of the craft of musical composition was consummate and whose unexpected modesty and artistic self-scrutiny merit not only our admiration, but possibly even a degree of awe.