Discovering Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII – Part 3

If you missed the first entry, click here! If you need to catch up on part 2, click here!

Caricature of Saint-Saëns by Alfred Lepetit

Orchestra rehearsals begin later this week, and I’m beyond excited. After months of preparing for our 2019-2020 season, it all begins with Gil’s downbeat on Thursday afternoon. Hearing the music jump off the page, especially for the very first time, is thrilling.

But I’m also a little nervous.

In the end, Hugh Macdonald painstakingly prepared more than a dozen musical inserts of varying lengths from the autograph manuscript of Henry VIII. Some were only a few bars long, others closer to fifty bars. But there were also two complete movements of the Ballet, and an entire Tableau at the top of Act III that we think will be about 15 minutes long. It’s hard to know, really. It’s never been performed before!

These inserts needed to be cataloged and added to the vocal score (for the singers), the full score (for Gil) and orchestra parts for about 70 players. A daunting and exacting project requiring endless late nights with a paper cutter, removable tape and pizza.

Imagine you have to add new material to an existing book. Some bits replace existing bits, some of them are simply added material. Adding a whole new chapter might be relatively easy, but a phrase here or paragraph there is trickier. Making sure everything fits correctly and works grammatically as one important word replaces another seamlessly. That’s as close as I can come to describing the daunting and exacting work that had to be completed in order to present Henry VIII as Saint-Saëns originally intended.

And soon we’ll hear it all come together amidst a myriad questions from the musicians and the hours making inevitable corrections.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, I hope Professor Macdonald is enjoying some R&R after his labors. He’s looking forward to his trip to Boston next week for the performance. And I’m looking forward to finally meeting my fellow Music Detective!

Our conversation continues:

LO: Do you think the bits we are resurrecting are good?

HM: Saint-Saëns was incapable of writing bad music, his technique and taste never let him down, so yes, the bits we are resurrecting are good, and well written. The question whether they serve their dramatic purpose is open to the listener’s opinion, although in general the more music there is, the more we learn about the character of the drama. Brevity and economy are virtues too, so it’s not always a gain.

LO: What would our composer think?

HM: He would be utterly delighted and would be on the first boat to Boston. It’s true that he often stayed away from performances of his own music, but there were so many then, he could hardly attend them all. But this is a rare and special event.

LO: What do you imagine happened during that first production period?

HM: It was exasperating for the composer, as Berlioz, Verdi and Wagner all found when presenting their operas at the Paris Opéra. There were too many egos, too many special interests, too many divas, all determined to be seen in a good light. Opera is no different today!

LO: Have you ever done anything like this previously?

HM: The nearest is perhaps my work on Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, which was extensively worked over by the composer. I recreated the earliest version for the revival at Covent Garden in 1966 and again for a production in Lyon in the 1980s.

LO: Did you imagine we would pull this off?

HM: Of course, if you were determined to do so!

Our amazing cast will be in Boston Monday for their first rehearsal. Watch for the Music Detective next week to hear how things are going!


Single Tickets for Henry VIII Are Now On Sale!

Watch the video below to hear a sample of what we are doing this year!

Video: Kathy Wittman of Ball Square Films  

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