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Hanson

Merry Mount, Op. 31, complete opera
Howard Hanson
b. Wahoo, Nebraska / October 28, 1896
d. Rochester, New York / February 16, 1981

One of the most revered figures in American music of the twentieth century, Hanson earned enormous acclaim as composer, conductor and educator. After studies in Italy, he returned to the U.S. and became director of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in 1924. During his 40-year term, he raised the institution’s standards to the highest level. He also appeared widely as a conductor, championing music by American composers in particular. His activities earned him a Pulitzer Prize, a Peabody Award, and 36 honorary degrees.

Hanson’s music is decidedly Romantic: lush, melodic, and approachable. His style flew in the face of many contemporary trends (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith, et al.). On the other hand, its color, rugged strength, and powerful human content have helped ensure its survival, while many less audience-friendly scores have dropped from sight.

Merry Mount, his only opera, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera of New York. However the first performance was given in concert, during the fortieth annual May Festival of the University Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 20, 1933. The composer conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In spite of the frugality that the major economic depression of the day enforced upon the company, the Met put together a lavish production for the new opera’s theatrical debut. The top-notch cast included the company’s star baritone, Lawrence Tibbett, in the central role of Wrestling Bradford, and mezzo-soprano Gladys Swarthout as his betrothed, Plentiful Tewke. The stage premiere took place on February 10, 1934, with Tullio Serafin conducting. A Saturday matinée, it was broadcast live on radio across the nation.

The Met’s 1933–34 season marked the culmination of the 25-year effort by the company’s director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, to commission and premiere operas by American composers. Despite winning few successes with the new pieces, he kept at it, eventually bringing 16 new operas to production. A handful, such as Deems Taylor’s The King’s Henchman and Peter Ibbetson, and The Emperor Jones by Louis Gruenberg, knew small measures of success, but none have endured.

The libretto of Merry Mount was written by Richard L. Stokes, a New York-based author and music critic who had researched the topic of Puritan fanaticism. It was an original work, but it displayed the influence of a story, The Maypole of Merry Mount, that was published in the celebrated American author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1837 collection, Twice Told Tales.

With the text complete, Stokes set out to find a composer to set it to music. He settled on Hanson, who was already a well-established composer and academic. Hanson was new to composing opera, but had already acquired considerable experience with choral music. He was well enough known that the Metropolitan Opera was willing to commission an opera from him setting Stokes’ text.

He described the music of Merry Mount as “warm-blooded…essentially a lyrical work (that) makes use of broad melodic lines as often as possible. There is less parlando than one might expect in a contemporary opera, and a greater tendency toward the old arioso style…Both harmonically and rhythmically, the listener will hear certain Americanisms. In orchestration, too, use has been made of certain orchestral colors and devices which were born on this side of the Atlantic.”

Merry Mount drew an enthusiastic response from the premiere audience. The front page of the New York Times read, “A stirring ovation…reception of Hanson/Stokes opera most enthusiastic of 10 years at the Metropolitan.” The cast received 50 curtain calls.

The critics were less taken by it. In the New York World-Telegram, Pitts Sanborn praised the choral writing: “True, there is oftener the suggestion of Mussorgsky than Massachusetts, but who would be so ungracious as to object to that? Nor has Dr. Hanson failed to assemble lively measures or to strike the witching note called for by the wild doings at the ‘Hellish Rendezvous.’ Unfortunately his writing for the solo voices is not free from awkwardness and at times the weight and density of the orchestral fabric constitutes a barrier between the word that is sung and the ears of the audience.” He had positive words for Lawrence Tibbett, as well: “He exhibits once more his intelligence and skill as a singing actor, as well as splendid courage and endurance.”

On the other hand, in his history of the Met, Irving Kolodin wrote, “Strongly motivated in artistic conviction, and with some stirring ensemble moments, Merry Mount nevertheless suffered from the composer’s inexperience in writing for the theatre.”

The opera received eight additional performances during that season. Among these were three touring performances, in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Rochester. The initial success did not prove a lasting one. It has not been heard at the Met again, and subsequent performances anywhere have been few.

Act I
In a Puritan colony in seventeenth-century New England, the congregation listens to their young preacher, Wrestling Bradford, preach about their mission to reclaim the New World from the forces of Satan. Privately, he confesses to Praise-God Tewke, one of the elders of the congregation, that he is tormented at night with dreams of demonic concubines and the demoness, Astoreth. Tewke persuades Bradford that the solution is for him to marry his daughter, Plentiful Tewke, who is in love with the preacher. Although Bradford wants to be married at once, Plentiful persuades him to wait a week. A troop of Puritan children enters. One serious boy tries to lead them in a religious game, but they are all distracted by the entrance of the jester, Jack Prence. The jester is captured and whipped by the Puritans. They learn that he is from a new colony of Cavaliers who plan to found a new colony devoted to pleasure, called Merry Mount. He is rescued by Lady Marigold Sandys. Bradford recognizes in her his vision of Astoreth. A battle ensues between the Puritans and the Cavaliers. Praise-God Tewke stops the fighting, chastising all for unruly behavior on the Sabbath. The Puritans accuse the Cavaliers of heresy; the Cavaliers accuse the Puritans of treason. Bradford, still infatuated with Marigold, agrees to a truce until the next day with the leaders of the Puritans. When he learns that Marigold is going to marry Sir Gower Lackland the next day, however, he breaks his word and orders the Puritans to attack Merry Mount that evening.

Act II
The celebration at Merry Mount begins with the christening of the village and a maypole dance, before the arrival of Marigold. The Cavaliers and a group of Indians celebrate Lackland and Marigold’s wedding, but as soon as the ceremony is over, Bradford and the Puritans enter, overcome the revelers, and set fire to the Cavalier settlement. In the process they humiliate Samoset, a local Indian chief. Bradford drags Marigold away. In another part of the forest, he tries to convince her, first to give up her worldly ways, then to love him. Marigold rejects him, and he attacks her. Lackland enters and fights with Bradford, but he is killed by one of the Puritans, and Marigold is carried off to the Puritan settlement. Tewke chastises Bradford for his treatment of Plentiful, and Bradford prays for forgiveness. But in a vision, Lucifer, played by the actor who played Lackland, tempts the preacher. He offers him wealth and power, but Bradford is strong. When he offers him that hand of Astoreth – played by the actress who plays Marigold – he gives in, and signs the Devil’s Book. He and Astoreth sing a love duet as the curtain falls.

Act III
Bradford is asleep in the forest, watched over by Plentiful Tewke. Bradford awakens and realizes what he has done. They hurry back to the Puritan settlement, which has been set upon and burned by Samoset and his tribe. Samoset is shot by a group of surviving Puritans, and the Indians flee. Bradford enters and describes his vision. He blames the fall of the settlement on the witchcraft of Marigold. The Puritans will kill her, but she defies them, saying that she will go to meet her husband. Bradford, enraged by this, says that he will go with her and fight Lackland again at the gates of Hell. Before the entire settlement, he renounces God. Removing his cap, he reveals a scarlet brand upon his forehead. The Puritans flee in terror, and Marigold faints. Bradford seizes her and rushes with her into the flaming church as the curtain falls.

© 2014 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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