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“And now, a postmodern self-referential opera!” Steven Stucky’s The Classical Style

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In the following guest post, Music Division Archivist Dr. Stephanie Akau and Music Division Archives Processing Technician Dr. Rachel McNellis explore The Classical Style by composer Steven Stucky and pianist and librettist Jeremy Denk. Using lines taken directly from the opera, Drs. Akau and McNellis take a look at the scenes and jokes of this work that now discoverable in the newly processed Steven Stucky Papers.

What happens when three musical chords walk into a bar? That question probably sounds like the beginning of a cheesy music theory joke, but American composer Steven Stucky provides the answer in his comic opera, The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). In 2012, pianist Jeremy Denk, who would write the opera’s libretto, approached Stucky about composing a work based on renowned musicologist Charles Rosen’s book The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (1971). For this project, Stucky regarded himself as more of a curator than a composer, as he wanted to incorporate stylistic elements from previous musical eras into his original music.[*] His score reflects the literal Classical style by borrowing from the works of the featured composers and arias from other operas. Denk also wove direct quotes from Rosen’s book into the libretto in tribute to the esteemed author and Denk’s close friend. The opera premiered at the 2014 Ojai Music Festival by the chamber music group the Knights, conducted by Robert Spano.

Typled list titled: Qutation and Allusion in The Classical Style"
Steven Stucky. Annotated list of musical allusions in The Classical Style, page 1, 2015. Box-Folder 3/3, Steven Stucky Papers, Music Division.

The opera opens with Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn in heaven. Denk described his notion of the set in an email to Stucky: “One imagines wall hangings: Happy 200 Years of Being Dead? Mostly Mozart posters? Signed photographs? Immortal Beloved portraits? Wagner Dartboard?” (Steven Stucky Papers, Box-Folder 24/4). The three composers are bored and disgruntled. Mozart is upset that he is not getting royalties from the release of Amadeus, although he has no complaints about the historical inaccuracies. Meanwhile, Beethoven is winning a game of Scrabble against his two reluctant opponents. His word “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a term describing Richard Wagner’s music, earned him 187 points, while Haydn’s “Bier” was worth a mere five and Mozart gleefully plays an obscenity.

Haydn picks up a copy of the New York Times, with a headline proclaiming “Classical Music is Dead.” The warning is dire. Haydn reads: “All over the world, the alarm is sounding that classical music is in trouble. Orchestra subscription sales are dropping widely, in some cases by as much as two percentage points a year. Ensembles are not balancing their budgets. Audiences are getting older and young people are turned off by classical music…” After bickering over what this news means for their own relevance, the three composers realize there is a book in heaven with their names in the subtitle, The Classical Style, and they go to Earth to seek help from its author, Charles Rosen.

Manuscript page of score.
Steven Stucky. Music sketches for The Classical Style, undated. Box-Folder 24/4. Steven Stucky Papers, Music Division.

In the meantime, Stucky and Denk introduce a side plot in the following scene that—you guessed it! —involves three chords walking into a bar. It is a comedic masterpiece: Conductor Robert Spano was forced to stop the dress rehearsal because he could not contain his laughter. [*]  Full of witty music theory banter, it features three other characters named after chords at the basis of Classical harmony: Dominant, Tonic, and Subdominant. Dominant walks into a bar and laments her inability to resolve. As she complains to the bartender about this “guy that follows me everywhere,” Tonic enters and sings an aria titled “Me” about his own importance; music composed for centuries up to present day supports that premise. In spite of her reservations, Dominant finds herself attracted to Tonic until Subdominant arrives and steals Tonic’s attention, creating a “codependent love triangle.” We can all agree with the bartender when he remarks: “The plot is thickening, in a kind of nerdy way.”

As the situation between the chords remains, literally, unresolved, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven continue their search for Charles Rosen, but instead encounter another musicologist: Henry Snibblesworth, an argyle-clad Ph.D. student from the University of California, Berkeley, who defines classical music as “Music so beautiful it has to be explained.” Upon meeting Beethoven, he bows deeply and begins to pepper him with the sorts of questions that an eccentric musician might have for a master composer, such as “Did you really intend your symphonies to be so patriarchal?” Snibblesworth also seeks to assure Beethoven of his continuing relevance, citing the thousands of articles, blog posts (a genre to which this publication also contributes), program notes, conferences, and concerts devoted to his music. And, thanks to Hollywood, the 5,000 people who think he was only a dog, much to Beethoven’s chagrin.

Typed libretto, annotated in black and red ink.
Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky. Annotated libretto for The Classical Style, undated. Box-Folder 4/5, Steven Stucky Papers, Music Division.

The composers go to the Sonata Form Symposium, where Rosen is scheduled to be the keynote speaker—although Rosen does not actually show up. Instead, the scene features a sung presentation about sonata form that Stucky composed in sonata form. Although sonata form was one of the predominant musical forms developed during the eighteenth century, the three composers are thoroughly unimpressed.

This is only the beginning of the adventure. Will the composers find Charles Rosen? Are Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart still relevant? Will they help the three chords come to a perfectly authentic resolution? To find out, watch the premiere on YouTube or come to the Performing Arts Reading Room to examine the score, libretto, and correspondence in the Steven Stucky Papers. In addition to The Classical Style’s hilarity, the Stucky Papers also contain music for his more serious works, as well as materials related to his career as a professor, Witold Lutosławski scholar, and composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Stucky’s The Classical Style plays into some stereotypes that will make classical musicians laugh without alienating new viewers, casual fans, or modern-day Snibblesworths. And we hope that, somewhere in the great beyond, Beethoven has finally found worthy Scrabble opponents in Steven Stucky and Charles Rosen. After all, to effectively satirize something, one needs to truly understand it.

[*] Ojai Music Festival. Pre-performance interview with Steven Stucky by Fred Child of American Public Media, 2014, time stamp for beginning of interview 30:41.

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