I was exposed to classical music at a very early age, & became an aficionado right away.
My earliest awareness came from some 78 rpm records in my mother’s collection. One that I remember well was Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune), a symphonic poem by Claude Debussy, inspired by the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. The great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky made a ballet of the work in 1912.
Program for Nijinsky’s ballet Afternoon of a Faun
Once the new 33-1/3 rpm LP records began to replace the old 78s, I started to accumulate my own library, including editor’s choice releases from the Saturday Review, & numerous selections from the Columbia Record Club.
My musical tastes were wide, & exposure to the wide range of selections from the Columbia Record Club, augmented by the public library’s collection, only continued to expand my expansive preferences. My father had bought a Webcor tape recorder, which allowed me to record the selections I checked out from the library, giving me a more extensive & lasting personal collection.
I also began taking piano lessons, with the intention of making music on my own, & sang in the children’s choir at a local Methodist church, an activity which I greatly enjoyed. I had the chance to travel to Carnegie Hall to attend one of Leondard Bernstein’s Young Person’s concerts, the occasional ballet, & a couple of Broadway musicals. My mother was active in creating a local cultural venue, the Old Mill Music Society, which met in the river mill building erected in 1676 by early settlers on a stream in the settlement now called Tinton Falls NJ. The society hosted renowned artists in an intimate concert setting in this historic building. In addition to absorbing the wonder of live chamber music, I had an occasion to participate more directly, when the scheduled page turner for the pianist accompanying the gifted violinist Joyce Flissler was unable to attend, I was chosen at the last minute to assume that duty.
The Old Mill, Tinton Falls NJ, home of the Old Mill Music Society
As well as classical music, from an early age I enjoyed more popular entertainment, including Big Band Swing, leading singers & singing groups, as well as what became known as bluegrass, jazz, folk, ethnic, & international genres.
The one major category that I wasn’t fond of, & indeed had no interest in, was opera, probably because I wasn’t exposed to it.
This all changed on a spring day in 1960. I was a 4th Form student at The Hill School in Pottstown PA. During the midday meal in the huge dining hall on 5 March, our headmaster announced the sudden death the night before on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera of the outstanding baritone, Leonard Warren. Ironically, as I later learned, the opera was Giuseppe Verdi’s La forza del destino (the force of destiny). After performing the magnificent duet “Solenne in quest’ ora” (solemnly at this hour) with tenor Richard Tucker, Warren launched into the dramatic recitative “Morir! Tremenda cosa!” (“To die! Tremendous moment!”), followed by the aria “Urna fatale” (0 fatal pages”), at the end of which he fell silent, & then pitched forward onto the stage, dying of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was 48 years old, about to turn 49.
Leonard Warren & Jan Peerce in a previously recorded performance of Warren’s final duet
Leonard Warren’s final performance – recitative “Solenne in quest’ora” & aria “Morir! Tremenda cosa!” At 5:10 in this video is the moment where the great baritone collapsed.
This tragic death moved me greatly. When I next was home, I rummaged through my mother’s & my own records, including some RCA anthologies in the series 60 Years of Music America Loves Best, finding among them some excerpts from various operas, among them a couple of recordings by Leonard Warren. It was an epiphany. I was immediately hooked.
I sought out recordings, both from the library and from the record club, & began enlarging my knowledge of this previously neglected art form. Starting with additional anthologies, including one from RCA entitled Opera for People Who HATE Opera, which included a recording of Leonard Warren & Giusepe Di Stefano in the duet “Solenne in quest’ ora”, which was nearly the last thing he sang in his final performance, I soon turned to complete recorded operas. A classmate at Hill, whose mother was a Julliard-educated pianist & piano teacher, introduced me to Richard Wagner, starting with his one comic opera Die Meistersinger, & then plunging into the great Ring Cycle.
A friend of my mother’s had an annual membership at the Met, with two subscription seats for the Saturday Matinée performances, but due to family obligations she was unable to use them, so several times each season I was able to attend these outstanding performances in the Old Met theater, home of Enrico Caruso, Leonard Warren, & so many other greats (incidentally, I have never attended a performance at the new Met at Lincoln Center). I became a stage door junkie, meeting many of the singers, including soprano Anna Moffo, as well as long-time broadcast host Milton Cross, & Opera Quiz regular Walter Slezak. This wonderful opportunity continued through my final years of secondary school, at The Pingry School in Elizabeth NJ, & my college years at the University of Pennsylvania.
I had a summer job during my years at Pingry, working for a young couple on Saturdays stuffing the supplements (comics, magazine, & such), readying them to be inserted into the Sunday newspapers before they were delivered. This relatively mindless job became something of a meditation, laying out the several supplemental inserts side by side on a long table, then assembling them one by one into a bundle, while listening to my employers’ recordings of complete operas. I quickly settled on a few favorites, including Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, a recording which featured Leonard Warren in the title role. I listened to it over & over, & soon bought my own copy, which I wore out with repeated listening.
I began to absorb the Italian language through listening to these recordings & following the librettos. I also acquired other favorite singers in addition to Leonard Warren, including of course the great Enrico Caruso, & the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, who was considered by many, including Caruso’s widow, to have inherited the mantle of the great Neaoplitan superstar. In fact, he was given the costume that Caruso used in his unforgettable performances of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci by Caruso’s widow. Years later, I saw the costume in the museum dedicated to Björling’s legacy during my visit to Stora Tuna, Borlänge in central Sweden, the hometown of Björling as well my father’s father’s family.
Björling was another great star at the Met, & often sang with Leonard Warren. In addition to Rigoletto, another recording that I played frequently during my newspaper job, & later bought for myself, was the great operatic double bill of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci & Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, two short operas written at the turn of the 20th Century which championed the new verismo (realism) school of opera. Björling appears in both operas, & Warren joins him in Pagliacci. Together with baritone Robert Merrill & soprano Victoria de los Angeles, their performances so moved me that, as with Rigoletto, I followed the librettos, singing along & familiarizing myself with every note.
These two operas portray brief slices of life. Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) is a brutal tale of a love triangle in rural Sicily, made more remarkable by the libretto, which is in Sicilian dialect rather than the usual poetic Italian. I Pagliacci is a play within a play, the story of a troupe of travelling players whose performance of a Punch & Judy style love triangle is interrupted by the real-life triangle between the wife of the leader of the troupe & a villager, with catastrophic consequences. In Vesti la giubba (Put on the costume), the troupe leader ponders the fact that the play must go on, acting the cuckolded husband with the wife who he now realizes has in fact cuckolded him. In the dramatic finale, the wife desperately tries to distdract her husband, who exclaims “No! Pagliaccio non son!” (No! I am not Pagliaccio!) & demands that she tell him the name of her lover. When she refuses, he stabs her, then the lover who runs to her aid, as the fool declares “La commedia è finita!” (the play is finished!) In this recording, Caruso performs the husband, de los Angeles is the wife, Robert Merrill the villager, & Leonard Warren the fool.
Jussi Björling performing one the most famous of all tenor arias, “Vesti la giubba” from I Pagliacci
Björling, Warren, Merrill & de los Angeles in the chilling, powerful finale of I Pagliacci
Since he came from the same Swedish town as my father’s family, as well as due to his magnificent voice & acting, I learned all that I could about this tenor from Borlänge. This alerted me to an astonishing series of coincidences. He was born just over 2 months before Leonard Warren, suffered a heart attack before a performance in London less than 2 weeks after Warren’s death, & died 6 months later, at the age of 49. One of his last performances was a recording of the magnificent Messa da Requiem of Giuseppe Verdi, his powerfully operatic setting of the medieval mass for the dead, a work I became intimately familiar with years later when a community chorus to which I belonged in a Boston suburb gave a performance of this unforgettable work.
Jussi Björling singing “Ingemisco”, the sublime tenor aria from Verdi’s Requiem, one of his last recordings
Of course, from my first discovery of opera, one of the artists whose recordings made the most impression on me was Enrico Caruso, the tenor from Naples Italy whose artistry ushered in the age of recorded music, making him one of the first superstars. One of his best-known recordings is his version of “Vesti la giubba“. In addition, two selections from Rigoletto were best-sellers: the duke’s aria “La donna è mobile” (Woman is fickle), recorded several times, including the 1907 selection below, & the unforgettable Quartet, “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Beautiful daughter of love), featuring soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, mezzo-soprano Flora Perini, & basso Giuseppe De Luca, recorded in 1917. In a previous two-part post (The Jester’s Curse & The Jester’s Curse Continues), I introduced the story of Rigoletto at some length, including several recordings of Leonard Warren & Jussi Björling.
One of several recordings of “La donna è mobile” by Enrico Caruso, from 1907
The memorable recording of “Bella figlia dell’amore”, the Rigoletto Quartet, by Caruso, Galli-Curci & others
Most of Caruso’s recordings were either operatic selections or Neapolitan songs from his native city, but he released one American popular recording that became a huge hit: George M. Cohan’s spirited war rouser, “Over There”. As I’m completing this post on Veterans Day/Armistice Day, 11 November 2015, which commemorates the armistice which ended World War I, it’s especially appropriate to include Caruso’s recording of this song, which recorded shortly before the armistice.
“Over There”, famous WWI song written in 1917 by George M. Cohan & recorded in 1918 by Enrico Caruso
As I learned more about Caruso, I discovered another remarkable coincidence: like Björling & Warren, Caruso also died young. Injured by an onstage accident during a performance of Samson & Delilah by Camille Saint-Saëns, then having a performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at the Brooklyn Academy of Music halted because of a throat hemorrhage, he gave only 3 more performances at the Met before deteriorating health led to his death from peritonitis in August 1921, at the age of 48. His last recording was of “Crucifixus”, from Gioacchino Rossini’s Petite Messe Solenelle (Little Solemn Mass), in September 1920.
Caruso’s last recording, “Crucifixus” from Rossini’s Petite Messe Solenelle, September 1920
I was struck by this series of coincidences: three of the greatest male opera stars of the 20th Century dying at the age of 48-49; two of the three born & stricken within days of one another; and the ironic nature of their final performances or recordings, all with mortality as the subject. They all died at their prime, either suddenly or from relatively short illness. Their performing skills never deteriorated, as is often the case with singers past their prime. And thanks to their many recordings, their remarkable careers are preserved for the ages.
This fact reminded me of a poem that I read in my teens as an assignment in an English class (at Hill, if I remember right). In memory of these superb performers, Housman’s verse seems an appropriate end to this essay.
To an Athlete Dying Young
BY A. E. HOUSMAN
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)
As an addendum, here is the report from the Metropolitan Opera archives of the tragic death of Leonard Warren:
[Met Performance] CID:184330
La Forza del Destino: Acts I, II partial. Metropolitan Opera House: 03/4/1960.
(Death of Leonard Warren
Review and Account)
Metropolitan Opera House
March 4, 1960
LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Acts I, II partial
Giuseppe Verdi–Francesco Maria Piave
Don Alvaro…………..Richard Tucker
Don Carlo……………Leonard Warren [Last performance]
Padre Guardiano………Jerome Hines
Fra Melitone…………Salvatore Baccaloni
Marquis de Calatrava….Louis Sgarro
[Verdi’s opera was performed in three acts this season;
Acts I and II were performed as Act I with the Inn Scene omitted.
Leonard Warren died in Act II after his aria Urna Fatale del mio destino.
In the first violin part of the Concertmaster, the exact spot is marked:
one measure after the Letter I, following the words Ora egli viva… e di mia man poi muoia…]
Review of performance and account of Leonard Warren’s death by Raymond A. Ericson in Musical America
In one of the most dramatic and tragic events to take place on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, Leonard Warren was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage and died during a performance of “La Forza del Destino” on March 4
The capacity audience that witnessed the occurrence in stunned disbelief had begun the evening in a state of excited anticipation-Renata Tebaldi was returning to the company for the season, and the cast included a triumvirate of leading American singers-Mr. Warren, Richard Tucker, and Jerome Hines. An ovation greeted Miss Tebaldi, the Leonora, when the curtain went up, and the audience’s enthusiasm continued to erupt after each of the great Verdian arias and ensembles that followed.
In the middle of Act II (as given at the Metropolitan), the duet for Mr. Warren and Mr. Tucker, “Solenne in quest’ ora” brought another crescendo of applause and bravos. Mr. Warren then was left onstage alone to sing the recitative that begins “Morir! Tremenda cosa!” (“To die! Tremendous moment!”). How ominous this phrase was to prove! Mr. Warren continued into the superb aria that follows, “Urna fatale” (0 fatal pages”), and he had never seemed in better form as his remarkable voice rode the long legato phrases and soared excitingly through the cadenzas to the climactic high notes. At the end, he stood quietly until the shouts of approval had died away. Moving to stage left he completed his next few lines of recitative and then fell forward heavily, as if he had tripped.
Roald Reitan, as the Surgeon, entered, singing his single phrase, “Lieta novella, e salvo” (“Good news I bring you, I saved him”). No response came from Mr. Warren, as Thomas Schippers, the conductor, waited with upstretched arms to bring the orchestra in.
Uncertainty and wonder gripped everyone for a few seconds, and the audience stirred uneasily. Mr. Reitan then went quickly over to Mr. Warren, knelt by his side. The audience did not know that Mr. Reitan raised Mr. Warren’s head slightly, that the stricken baritone uttered faintly the word “Help!” and then went limp. The audience was only aware of Mr. Reitan’s looking anxiously into the wings and at Mr. Schippers, and of a voice in the auditorium saying clearly, “Bring the curtain down!”
The great golden curtains came down. Mr. Schippers waited at his post and the audience waited in their seats for several minutes until Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan, appeared before the curtains to announce that the performance would continue. Shortly thereafter, another member of the staff appeared, saying there would be an intermission until the replacement (Mario Sereni) who had been called to substitute for Mr. Warren arrived for the opera.
Backstage, meanwhile, the gravity of the baritone’s condition immediately became apparent. Dr. Adrian W. Zorgniotti, the house physician, who was in the audience, ran backstage, examined Mr. Warren and called for oxygen. An ambulance and a police emergency truck carrying oxygen were called. Oxygen supplies kept in the Metropolitan’s first-aid room were rushed backstage. Osie Hawkins, Metropolitan bass, and two staff attendants attempted to breathe into Mr. Warren’s mouth.
Mr. Warren’s wife, Agathe, had attended the performance and was at her husband’s side during his final moments. She alone, at one point, had seen a peculiar expression on Mr. Warren’s face and realized that all was not well with him. Also present was Mgr. Edwin Broderick, of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, who left the audience to come backstage and administer the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. And at some point after 10 o’clock Mr. Warren died.
About 10:30, warning bells rang in the lobbies, and the audience filed back to their seats. Mr. Bing reappeared before the curtain, his expression grave.
“This is one of the saddest days in the history of opera,” he began. “I will ask you please to stand,” he continued, as the shaken audience uttered gasps of disbelief, in memory of one of our greatest performers, who died in the middle of one of his greatest performances.”After the audience had arisen, some of the members openly sobbing, Mr. Bing concluded: “I am sure you will agree with me mat it would not be possible to continue with the performance.” Slowly, a dazed and saddened public departed.
Leonard Warren, who was 48 years old, died at the height of a career in which he was acclaimed as one of the great operatic baritones of our time. Only four days before his death he had received some of the highest praise ever accorded a singer for his performance of the title role in a new production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.”
He made a specialty of the Verdi repertoire, and he invariably sang with distinction the many superb baritone roles created by the great Italian operatic composer. He was perhaps, best known for his Rigoletto, a role that he not only sang repeatedly at the Metropolitan but also at La Scala in Milan and at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. In addition to the roles already mentioned, he was familiar to Metropolitan audiences as the elder Germont in “La Traviata”, di Luna in “Il Trovatore”, “Iago in “Otello”, Macbeth, Amonasro in “Aida”, Renato in “Un Ballo in Maschera”, Carlo in “Ernani”. He was also much admired for such non-Verdi roles as Scarpia in “Tosca”, Gerard in “Andrea Chenier”, Barnaba in “La Gioconda”, and Tonio in “Pagliacci”.