American Political Opera in the Twentieth Century

by Joanna Miklaszewska (Author)
Monographs 206 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 American political opera during the first half of the twentieth century
  • 1.1 The first American operas
  • 1.2 The feminist strand in American opera: Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All (1947)
  • 1.2.1 The linguistic qualities of the libretto. A new type of female character in an operatic work
  • 1.2.2 Polystylism in the musical fabric of the opera
  • 1.3 American music drama: Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul (1949)
  • 2 The ‘portrait opera’: Philip Glass’s operatic trilogy
  • 2.1 A new genre of opera: the ‘portrait opera’
  • 2.2 The poetical portrait of Albert Einstein in the opera Einstein on the Beach (1976)
  • 2.3 Between minimalist repetition and operatic cantilena: Satyagraha (1979)
  • 2.4 Dramatic and heroic aspects of the opera Akhnaten (1983)
  • 3 Current political events on the operatic stage. The works of John Adams
  • 3.1 Contemporary politicians as characters in heroic opera. Nixon in China (1987)
  • 3.2 Science, politics and history in opera: The Death of Kinghoffer (1991), I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), Doctor Atomic (2005)
  • 3.3 Political and multicultural elements in stage oratorios
  • 4 Between speech and operatic song. Steve Reich and his new vocal style
  • 4.1 Speech as a new source of melody
  • 4.2 Religious aspects of the opera The Cave (1993)
  • 4.3 The civilisational and cultural context in Three Tales (2002)
  • 4.4 A new type of multimedia musical spectacle of a documentary character
  • 5 American political opera in the twentieth century. From historical opera to documentary stage work
  • 5.1 Opera as a tool of political satire. George Antheil’s Transatlantic (1929) and Laurie Anderson’s United States I–IV (1983)
  • 5.2 Inspirations from exotic cultures of East and West. Rogers Sessions’s Montezuma (1963), Charles Wuorinen’s The Politics of Harmony (1969) and Tan Dun’s The First Emperor (2006)
  • 5.3 Innovative operatic genres in the output of American composers of the second half of the twentieth century: Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams
  • Iconography
  • Selected discography
  • List of musical examples
  • List of tables
  • Bibliography


Political opera is a phenomenon represented by numerous operatic works written during different eras addressing subjects from political life. Today, it is one of the most important types of opera. In works of political opera, the political content is merged with social and historical issues, and occasionally with themes of a philosophical nature. Although political subjects were addressed increasingly often by opera composers during the twentieth century, it is no easy task to define the generic features of political opera, as Caroline Harvey indicates: ‘In recent years, the term “political” has shifted its meaning to include any work that is ideologically motivated, a definition that in its loosest interpretation might include all opera.’1 In this book, I will use a narrower concept of political opera, referring to a definition given by Harvey that confines the political subject matter ‘either to themes drawn from historical rebellion, revolution or unrest; or to works that have deliberate designs on the listener, aiming to influence his or her values or beliefs.’2

Around the turn of the twenty-first century, opera was flourishing. The revival of interest in this genre of stage music, highly appealing to audiences, was largely thanks to the work of American composers working during the second half of the twentieth century: Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich. A significant place is held in American operatic output by works addressing contemporary political subjects, the most popular of which is perhaps Adams’s Nixon in China. Another work that could be assigned to the category of political opera is Steve Reich’s video opera Three Tales, in which the themes (the Hindenburg airship disaster, American atom bomb tests, genetic engineering) concerned ideas important to society around the turn of the twenty-first century, moving audiences to reflect. Another important political opera is Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. These three operas form a paradigm of contemporary American political opera, with its variety of musical genres, representing new kinds of stage music (topical documentary stage work, video opera and portrait opera).

The aim of the monograph American Political Opera in the Twentieth Century is to analyse the substantial contribution made by American composers to the development of twentieth-century opera. I will highlight innovation in composition technique, the use of the prosody of speech and its concordance with ←7 | 8→the music, and the addressing of original themes not previously used in operas. Innovations can be noted particularly in the domain of political operas, which form the principal subject of the considerations expressed in this book, and also operas addressing social issues. Consequently, works by American composers that belong to the genre of social opera will also be discussed.

The operas analysed in this monograph, written from 1976 onwards, represent a watershed in twentieth-century American opera, characterised by three main aspects. The first aspect is the renewal of contemporary opera through the creation of the video opera – a new musical genre of a documentary character rooted in the tradition of musique concrète and in the phenomenon defined in contemporary art as the ‘ready-made object’. Video opera adheres to the poetics of the multimedia spectacle, with influences from the pop music video. Represented by the works of Steve Reich, it departs entirely from the tradition of operatic music and Italian bel canto. The second crucial aspect is the reform of opera effectuated in his work by John Adams. He created a new type of opera, the subject matter of which was linked to contemporary events, shown with documental accuracy, but as a musical work deeply rooted in the tradition of the Italian and French operas of Verdi and Gounod: melodious operas employing a large symphony orchestra and such components of the operatic form as aria, chorus and ballet scene. The third innovative feature is the introduction – in the works of Philip Glass – of a new musical genre: the ‘portrait’ opera, a variety of historical opera showing a great historical figure (e.g. Albert Einstein, M. K. Gandhi, the pharaoh Akhnaten, Johannes Kepler) with a powerful personality whose achievements exerted a particularly strong influence on society.

This book comprises five chapters. The first presents a profile of American political opera during the first half of the twentieth century, taking particular account of Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, representing a model example of political opera. The ensuing three chapters deal in turn with three groundbreaking achievements by American composers, expressed in their creation of innovative musical genres (Philip Glass’s portrait opera in Chapter 2, topical opera as cultivated by John Adams in Chapter 3 and Steve Reich’s video opera in Chapter 4). Chapter 5, ‘American political operas in the twentieth century: from historical opera to documentary stage work’, sums up the themes addressed in the book and profiles several major operas on political subjects written during the second half of the twentieth century.

Particularly important for research into American political opera have been John Bokina’s Opera and Politics. From Monteverdi to Henze (Yale University Press, 1997), offering a broad historical survey of the development of political opera from its very beginnings, and also monographs of two political ←8 | 9→operas: John Adams’s Nixon in China. Musical Analysis, Historical and Political Perspectives by Timothy A. Johnson (Ashgate, 2011) and Singing Archaeology. Philip Glass’s Akhnaten by John Richardson (Wesleyan University Press, 1999). Johnson’s work is an exhaustive compendium of knowledge about Nixon in China, containing detailed analysis of the work that employs the methodology of neo-Riemannian harmonic analysis. One valuable aspect of Richardson’s study is a presentation of the origins and reception of Akhnaten, together with a musical analysis of the work. In Jelena Novak’s Postopera: Reinventing the Voice-Body (Ashgate, 2015) three American operas are analysed, among others Steve Reich’s Three Tales. Other important sources of information about American political opera are the reflections and comments of leading American opera composers on their own works, contained in Reich’s Writings on Music 1965–2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002), Glass’s Music by Philip Glass (Harper & Row, 1987) and Adams’s Hallelujah Junction. Composing an American Life (Faber & Faber, 2008). Among the Polish musicological literature, mention should be made of works in which authors have addressed issues relating to American social and political operas. Zbigniew Skowron’s Nowa muzyka amerykańska [New American music] (Musica Iagellonica, 1995) is a wide-ranging synthesising study of twentieth-century American music in historical and cultural context, in which the author presents the major American operatic works of the twentieth century, including works on political subjects. American operas are discussed from the perspective of national features in Anna G. Piotrowska’s Idea muzyki narodowej w ujęciu kompozytorów amerykańskich pierwszej połowy XX wieku [The idea of national music in the minds of American composers of the first half of the twentieth century] (Adam Marszałek, 2003). Tomasz Biernacki and Monika Pasiecznik’s Po zmierzchu. Eseje o operach współczesnych [After twilight: essays on contemporary operas] (Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2012) contains chapters devoted to operatic works by John Cage and Robert Ashley, as well as Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach. John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer is discussed by Dorota Szwarcman in the article ‘News opera’ (Polityka, 2014/32). In her book Muzyka i polityka [Music and politics] (PWM Edition, 1999), Danuta Gwizdalanka addresses music’s various connections with politics; one chapter (‘Opera – gatunek pod specjalnym nadzorem’ [Opera: a genre under special surveillance] is devoted to operatic music.

In the present work, I have adopted a methodological approach referring to the method presented in Mieczysław Tomaszewski’s Interpretacja integralna dzieła muzycznego. Rekonesans [The integral interpretation of the musical work: A reconnaissance]. The author describes his method of integral interpretation as presenting a musical work from several complementary perspectives, ←9 | 10→which should be carried out in four stages, termed ‘principles’: 1) the principle of complementarity (complementing technical-formal analysis of the work with interpretation of its musical poetics, including its dramatic structure, expression and style), 2) the principle of ontological completeness (studying the work in the four phases of its development: conception, artistic realisation, aesthetic perception and cultural reception), 3) the principle of contextuality (presenting the work in biographical, historical and cultural contexts), 4) the principle of hierarchisation (showing the value and meaning of the work, placing it within the canon of a given culture).3 That method is encapsulated by Maciej Gołąb: ‘This is a postulate not so much of syncretism but of a holistic analysis, proving the necessity, if musicology is to enter the canon of the humanities, of transcending a purely music-theoretical enquiry of the work.’4 In the present work, I have employed historical-comparative analysis that enables me to show the changes in political opera in the United States in historical and cultural context. The analysis of major works extends from their conception, through form, composition technique, expression and style, to the works’ resonance in twentieth-century culture. Besides twentieth-century operas, also described are important works written at the beginning of the twenty-first century: Steve Reich’s Three Tales, Tan Dun’s The First Emperor and John Adams’s Doctor Atomic.

The methodological approach employed in this book refers also to the analytical method used by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, who postulate expanding the existing sphere of study in contemporary analysis of the operatic work and introducing, alongside musical analysis, also analysis of the poetry and the dramatic action – elements that determine the special character of the operatic work and distinguish it from instrumental music.5 I explore the changes that occurred in American operatic music before and after the Second World War, as well as the watershed period of the last three decades of the twentieth century, which brought innovative compositional procedures, new generic concepts and original themes, taking account of the broader cultural context.

I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Professor Przemysław Wiszewski, Dean of the Department of Historical and Pedagogic Studies of the University of Wrocław, for making it possible for me to pursue this research project. I am grateful to Musica Iagellonica and Dr Andrzej Sitarz for consenting to the translation of my postdoctoral dissertation and to the translator, John Comber, for ←10 | 11→his excellent work. I also wish to thank Lucie Jansch for making available the photographs from a performance of Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach used in this book and Iwona Marchewka, head of the Literary Department of the Teatr Wielki in Łódź, for agreeing to use the photos from the performance of Glass’s opera Akhnaten. My thanks also go to Professor Maciej Gołąb, Director of the Institute of Musicology at the University of Wrocław, Professors Marcin Gmys and Krzysztof Szwajgier for their valuable and insightful remarks, and Professor Zbigniew Przerembski, head of the Systematic Musicology Unit of the Institute of Musicology at the University of Wrocław, for his kind support of the project. This book also owes a great deal to the expert remarks and methodological guidance of Professor Jadwiga Paja-Stach, whom I consulted at an early stage in the writing of this work and to whose memory I wish to dedicate it.

←11 | 12→←12 | 13→

1 Caroline Harvey, ‘Words and actions’, in Cooke (ed.), The Cambridge Companion, 53.

2 Ibid., 54.

3 Tomaszewski, Interpretacja, 56–64.

4 Gołąb, Musical Work Analysis, 166.

5 Abbate and Parker, ‘Introduction’, in Abbate and Parker (eds), Analyzing Opera.

1 American political opera during the first half of the twentieth century

1.1 The first American operas

Premiered in Philadelphia in 1781 was a work that may be regarded as the first American opera: Francis Hopkinson’s opera-oratorio The Temple of Minerva, an allegorical work that eulogised the French-American alliance.6 Francis Hopkinson (1737–1791) trained and spent his whole professional career in Philadelphia. He was remarkably versatile: a trained lawyer (he practised in Philadelphia), a politician and an American patriot, one of the signatories of the Declaration of the Independence of the United States in 1776. He also dabbled in literature, writing essays, satires and patriotic verse. It is highly likely that he gained his musical training with the English organist James Bremner, who worked in Philadelphia.7 An active concert harpsichordist, he also wrote songs, choral works and psalm settings. The Temple of Minerva contained an overture, solo, ensemble and choral parts (its music has not come down to us; only the work’s libretto is known). It featured allegorical characters: Genius of America, Genius of France, Minerva and High Priest of Minerva. In a press note relating to a performance on 11 December 1781, the work was described as an ‘oratorio’; it was also mentioned that the performance was given in the presence of General George Washington and his wife, as well as a French minister.8 Oscar Sonneck, meanwhile, considered that The Temple of Minerva represented the genre of opera: ‘Though planned on very much smaller lines, it would belong to those mythological-allegorical-political operas, so fashionable at the European ←13 | 14→courts during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and which Hermann Kretzschmar happily christened “Hof und Staats Opern”.’9

The first stage works written in the American colonies referred to works that were popular in Europe: they were ballad operas and pasticcios. In most cases, the music of those works has not survived; the majority of the librettos, however, have come down to us. The popularity of ballad operas in America is linked to the reputation gained by The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch, a classic work in the genre, first staged in London in 1728 and performed in New York in 1750 and 1751 by artists from Philadelphia. Roman Kowal writes of that work’s reception: ‘The Beggar’s Opera became a hit in London, the provinces and the colonies, securing a popularity that has endured till this day’.10 Other composers of ballad operas were James Hewitt, who wrote an opera on an Indian subject, Tammany (prod. New York 1794), Benjamin Carr, composer of The Archers, to a libretto based on Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (prod. New York 1796), and the Frenchman Victor Pellisier, who in his opera Edwin and Angelina (prod. New York 1796) used a libretto based on Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield. Yet none of those composers was native American; they all came to the United States from Europe.

The American operas written during the nineteenth century were often influenced by current trends in European opera music, yet, as H. Wiley Hitchcock notes, ‘Of all the kinds of art-music of the American cultivated tradition between 1820 and the Civil War, the least significant, and the least widely heard, was opera’.11 The first American work in the grand opéra genre is considered to be William Henry Fry’s Leonora, first staged in 1845 in Philadelphia. The work’s libretto, based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1838 play The Lady of Lyons, was prepared by the composer’s brother, Joseph Reese Fry. Another opera by W. H. Fry, Notre Dame de Paris, is also an adaptation of European literary output: the novel ←14 | 15→by Victor Hugo. Original American prose – Washington Irving’s tale of Rip van Winkle – provided the subject matter for George Frederic Bristow’s opera of the same title, first performed in 1855 at Niblo’s Theatre in New York. That work proved a success and ran for four weeks.12 Like Fry’s Leonora, it represented the genre of grand opéra.

In the output of American composers, the opera genre was more widely represented during the second half of the nineteenth century, when operas were composed by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Walter Damrosch, Victor Herbert and others. Yet no widely renowned work was written during that period, and many works were not even staged. American-born opera composers working around the turn of the twentieth century had trained in Europe (mainly in Germany). Their works reflected current trends in French and German opera (Wagnerian drama). One of the operas composed at that time was Azara by John Knowles Paine (1839–1906), an American who trained at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin then from 1861 was a prominent figure in the musical life of Boston, as an organist, conductor and teacher, and a professor at Harvard University. He was one of the most outstanding representatives of the Second New England School, alongside younger composers including George Chadwick and Horatio Parker.13 Paine wrote Azara in the years 1886–1889.14 It is a work in three acts, displaying influences from Richard Wagner, both in the type of libretto (based on an anonymous mediaeval French tale, or chantefable, about Aucassin and Nicolette) and in the music (employing monologue and dialogue parts, the chromaticisation of the musical fabric, and fanfare motifs). The action takes place in Provence, and the main character is the Moorish princess Azara, a ward of Count Aymar, a vassal of King Rainulf of Provence. Another German-trained American composer, George Whitefield Chadwick (he studied with Salomon Jadassohn and Carl Reinecke in Leipzig and with Joseph Rheinberger in Munich, among others), also turned to the opera genre during the 1890s. His operatic output is diverse in terms of type and subject matter. In the opera-burlesque Tabasco, he was inspired by popular and dance music of different countries and epochs, introducing marches, galops, waltzes, gigues, a Spanish bolero, a French ←15 | 16→rigaudon and an Irish ditty.15 His three-act lyric drama Judith is based on the biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes. In this work, Chadwick referred to the genre of lyric opera, which developed in nineteenth-century French music, continuing the tradition of such works as Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila and Jules Massenet’s Hérodiade.16 In his opera The Padrone, meanwhile, he addressed contemporary social themes (Italian immigrants living in the North End district of Boston).17 Chadwick also composed the one-act pastoral opera Love’s Sacrifice, probably for didactic purposes.18

One significant work in the history of American opera is Frederick Shepherd Converse’s The Pipe of Desire, composed in 1905 and first performed on 31 January 1906 at the Jordan Hall in Boston.19 This was the first American opera to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (18 March 1910). Converse trained with John Knowles Paine at Harvard, and also with the pianist Carl Baermann (a pupil of Franz Liszt) and George Whitefield Chadwick in Boston, as well as studying in Munich with the eminent pedagogue Joseph Rheinberger, who trained a number of outstanding composers (including Wolf-Ferrari and Humperdinck). The libretto to The Pipe of Desire was written by George Edward Barton, who drew on legendary themes taken from Celtic mythology. This opera, generically rooted in the Romantic type of the fantastical opera, features such characters as First Undine, First Gnome and First Sylph, as well as a chorus of elves.20

Frederick Shepherd Converse was an outstanding pedagogue, who lectured at the New England Conservatory in Boston (from 1931 to 1938, he was dean of the Conservatory), his pupils including Alan Hovhaness. From 1908 to 1914, he was deputy head of the Boston Opera Company. Besides his first opera, The Pipe of Desire, Converse composed several other operatic works. Two of them ←16 | 17→feature social themes: The Sacrifice (1910, premiered in Boston in 1911) and The Immigrants (1914, not staged).

Further expansion of American opera on social and political themes can be noted during the 1930s and 40s. As Zbigniew Skowron writes, at that time opera became a tool for social commentary.21 Works of that type were written by Virgil Thomson (The Mother of Us All), Marc Blitzstein (The Cradle Will Rock, I’ve Got the Tune, No for an Answer, Regina) and George Gershwin (Porgy and Bess). That period also brought works dubbed American national operas, in respect to their music and librettos. Foremost among them was Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.22

In 1968, Aaron Copland addressed the subject of the emergence of American national opera within the context of works by Virgil Thomson and Marc Blitzstein:

For a long time there existed a strong desire for somebody to write a real American opera. The dozen or more native stage works produced by the Metropolitan Opera Company in as many years left us just about where we were. They all made English sound like ‘translationese’. But now at last we have had two composers – Virgil Thomson and Marc Blitzstein – who seem to have set us on our way toward having our own kind of operatic piece. I am not sure that what they have written is to be called opera, but it certainly is a form of musical drama that is thoroughly absorbing and attacks the primary operatic problem of the natural setting of English to music.23

During the 1930s and 40s, both those composers wrote operas featuring political themes. They included Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937), referring to the work of mining unions, and Thomson’s The Mother of Us All (1947), dealing with Susan B. Anthony, a women’s equal rights activist. The music and form of those works displayed links to the tradition of American music: in The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein referred to formal elements of the musical and introduced typical American dialects, whilst Thomson, in The Mother of Us All, employed musical themes referring to American hymns, ballads and dances.24

←17 | 18→

1.2 The feminist strand in American opera: Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All (1947)

Virgil Thomson wrote three operas: Four Saints in Three Acts, to a libretto by Gertrude Stein (1928, orch. 1933), The Mother of Us All, also to a libretto by Stein (1947), and Lord Byron, to a libretto by Jack Larson (1968). A strong political accent appears in The Mother of Us All.25 In his preface to the score, the composer defines this work as a ‘pageant’, so a sort of historical spectacle. It is set in nineteenth-century America (the Epilogue, Act 2 scene 3, shifts the action to ‘some years later’).

1.2.1 The linguistic qualities of the libretto. A new type of female character in an operatic work

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), who wrote the opera’s libretto, was one of the leading figures in twentieth-century American literature, a representative of the so-called Lost Generation, together with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. From 1902, she lived in Paris. For many years, she ran an artistic salon on rue de Fleurus, amassing an impressive art collection that included works by Picasso, Cézanne and Matisse. Her salon was frequented by Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and many other artists and writers. Gertrude Stein’s literary output, which includes novels, poems and opera librettos, displays experimental tendencies, visible in her departure from traditional poetical forms and in the use of a peculiar method of prose writing. The definition of that method, given by Gertrude Stein in 1925, is described ←18 | 19→as follows by Zbigniew Maszewski: ‘[a method of] repetition and recommencement in a process of creating a “continuous present”, freeing the text from the ordering schema of memory and causality, imparting to it an inner movement based on an awareness of the successive moments in the immediate experiencing of reality’.26

Gertrude Stein met Virgil Thomson in 1926. Their collaboration resulted in what is regarded as the composer’s most famous work: the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, to which Stein wrote the libretto in 1927.27 It was formally innovative, devoid of any plot, and the libretto contained plays on words and allusions to its author’s life. Thus Four Saints in Three Acts, important not just in the history of American music, adheres to the innovative trends in opera of the first decades of the twentieth century, visible above all in European opera, involving a reduction of the role of the narrative element in the libretto. Those trends are noticeable already in Claude Debussy’s groundbreaking opera Pelléas et Mélisande, to a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck (1902), and in Karol Szymanowski’s music drama Król Roger [King Roger], to a libretto by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and the composer (1924). Those tendencies come fully to the fore in opera of the second half of the twentieth century, with Philip Glass’s operatic masterpiece Einstein on the Beach (1976), devoid of a narrative aspect, referring to the achievements of experimental theatre. One extreme example of work of this type is Glass’s A Madrigal Opera (1980), which has no libretto. The composer produced only music; the director was to impart a specific dramatic shape to the work.

In establishing the subject of their next operatic collaboration, Thomson and Stein were inclined towards the idea of a work set in nineteenth-century America containing political strands. Virgil Thomson saw it as an opera ‘about nineteenth-century America, with perhaps the language of the senatorial orators quoted’.28 In choosing the main character of their opera, Thomson and Stein considered the figure of George Washington, but Thomson did not want the action to be set in the eighteenth century. Stein’s proposal of a subject linked to the impeachment of president Andrew Johnson in 1868 and to the figure of Georges Clemenceau (then a young journalist living in the United States, later prime ←19 | 20→minister of France) was also ultimately rejected, with Stein becoming interested in the figure of the famous American suffragette Susan B. Anthony, ‘like Saint Teresa and Stein herself, a pioneering woman misunderstood in her own time’, as the composer’s biographer Anthony Tommasini wrote.29

Gertrude Stein completed the libretto to The Mother of Us All in March 1946. As Richard Jackson notes, it is ‘less abstract than her Four Saints, though still unconventional’.30 The opera is divided into two acts, but the division appears to be merely a nod to the tradition of Classical-Romantic opera. The action in this work is not continuous, and there are no distinct dramatic strands. The libretto constitutes a sequence of loosely juxtaposed tableaux portraying the opera’s principal character and showing (by introducing well-known historical figures) the historical background, accentuating current political life. Those aspects are underscored by the character of Act 1 scene 1, entitled ‘A political meeting’, and the Epilogue, which is set in Congress Hall. The libretto also features a documentary aspect, with excerpts from the speeches and writings of some of the historical figures appearing in the opera.31 Besides texts by Susan B. Anthony and Daniel Webster and speeches by John Adams, also quoted are literary texts, including by the English writer Frances Burnett, which lends the libretto the character of a literary collage.32

It is impossible to specify the exact time of the action, which takes place during the second half of the nineteenth century, after 1865 (as is indicated by the appearance of two veterans of the American Civil War), with the Epilogue concerning a later time, after the death of Susan B. Anthony. We can specify the time of the action of the Epilogue thanks to a note written in the preface to the score by the author of the scenario, Maurice Grosser, to the effect that in accordance with the librettist’s concept the final scene is played out on the day of the unveiling of a sculpture representing Susan B. Anthony and her suffragette companions. As mentioned in the preface, that is an authentic sculpture, standing in the Capitol in Washington DC.33 Made from Carrara marble by ←20 | 21→Adelaide Johnson, it was presented at the US Congress by the National Woman’s Party as a gift to the American nation and placed in the Capitol. It was unveiled in the Rotunda Hall there on 15 February 1921, on the 101st anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony, attended by representatives of seventy different women’s organisations. It is noted in the preface, however, that Grosser does not consider the remarks concerning staging appended to the score to be the only ones possible; for example, in the scenario included in the published score of the work, the suffragettes’ sculpture that is to appear in the final scene is replaced by a statue of Susan B. Anthony alone, which is to be unveiled in the US Congress.

The opera features both historical and fictional characters. Some of the historical figures appear together in the work with the utmost disregard for chronology: for instance, John Quincy Adams (d. 1848) with Lillian Russell (b. 1860). There is also a semi-fantasy character, Angel More, the long-since deceased lover of Daniel Webster (who also appears in the opera), whom the composer describes as ‘part angel, part ghost and part ingénue’.34 Zbigniew Skowron writes that the characters in The Mother of Us All are introduced by Gertrude Stein, as in Four Saints in Three Acts, ‘in accordance with surreal rules bordering on dream’.35

The table below (Tab. 1) shows the proportions between the historical and fictional characters in the opera. One notes a clear majority of fictional characters (nineteen) over historical figures (ten). The historical figures are dominated by politicians. The opera’s main heroine, Susan B. Anthony, exerted a significant influence on the political world through her social work, as is emphasised in the opera’s libretto. Thanks to her efforts, the word ‘male’ (concerning the electorate) was inscribed in the US Constitution, then in 1920 (fourteen years after her death), on the strength of the Nineteenth Amendment, women gained the right to vote. One striking feature is the presence in the opera of three American presidents: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. There are also two other significant figures in nineteenth-century American politics: Daniel Webster and Thaddeus Stevens (singing a VIP trio with Johnson). The list is completed by Anthony Comstock, a postal inspector espousing Victorian values, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (1873), a sort of watchdog body for public morality. Comstock was opposed to the publication of works with obscene content. Congress even passed a bill (the Comstock Law) that made it illegal to distribute any such works by post. Other characters are the actress and singer Lillian Russell, who supported the suffragette movement, ←21 | 22→←22 | 23→the writer Constance Fletcher and the young college professor Donald Gallup, a close friend of Gertrude Stein, a bibliographer, publisher and collector of books and works of art, long-serving curator of the library at Yale University and author of bibliographies of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who after Stein’s death was responsible for her legacy (among other things, he published letters to Stein as The Flowers of Friendship, and he also helped prepare an eight-volume collection of her unpublished works). There are seven male historical figures in the opera and three women (including the work’s main heroine).

The proportions are different among the fictional characters, with nine women and ten men. For most of these characters, the librettist gave both Christian name and surname, but some have a first name only (Susan B. Anthony’s close friend ←23 | 24→Anne36) or a first name and the initial of a surname (e.g. Henry B., Henrietta M.) or just initials (A. A., T. T.). Three characters are given no name at all: the brother of Indiana Elliot (whose role is marginal) and two representatives of the Negro population: a woman and a man (spoken parts in just one scene). The relatively large group of fictional characters in the opera is more differentiated in terms of profession than the group of historical figures and offers a cross-section of American society of the second half of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth century. We find intellectuals (a man and a woman) and artists (a young French painter living in the US), several feminists, representatives of the American social elite (Isabel Wentworth, Henry B.), individuals from lower social strata (Indiana Elliot and her brother, Negro Man and Negro Woman) and two veterans of the Civil War. The characters Gertrude S. and Virgil T. jokingly refer to the opera’s librettist and composer.

Tab. 1: Virgil Thomson, The Mother of Us All, characters in the opera

Historical figures

Dates of birth and death, nationality, profession

Type of voice

Susan B. Anthony

1820–1906, American social activist, one of the leaders of the suffragette movement

dramatic soprano

Daniel Webster*

1782–1852, American politician and lawyer, senator, US Secretary of State 1841–1843 and 1850–1852


Andrew Johnson

1808–1875, American politician, 17th President of the United States (1865–1869)


Thaddeus Stevens**

1792–1868, American Republican politician, US Congressman 1849–1853 and 1859–1868


Anthony Comstock

1844–1915, American postal inspector and politician


John Adams

probably John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), American lawyer and politician, 6th President of the United States (1825–1829)

romantic tenor

Lillian Russell

1860–1922, American actress and singer

lyric soprano

Ulysses S. Grant

1822–1885, general, 18th President of the United States (1869–1877), commander-in-chief of the American army (1864–1869)


Constance Fletcher

1859?–1938, writer

high mezzo-soprano

Donald Gallup

1913–2000, American young college professor


Fictional characters

Description in the score

Type of voice


confidante and close friend of Susan B. Anthony


Gertrude S.

cheerful stocky woman of middle age


Virgil T.

pleasant and efficient master of ceremonies


Jo the Loiterer***

recently discharged Civil War soldier


Chris the Citizen

recently discharged Civil War soldier


Indiana Elliot

young, pretty provincial


Angel More

former sweetheart of Daniel Webster, now dead – part angel, part ghost and part ingénue

light lyric soprano

Henrietta M.

feminist of 1890


Henry B.

sombre poetic gentleman of 1870


Gloster Heming

intellectual of 1890–1900


Isabel Wentworth

intellectual of 1890–1900


Anna Hope

feminist of 1900


Jenny Reefer

comical feminist, outspoken and opinionated, close friend of Anne and Susan B.


Herman Atlan

French painter of 1860, young, attractive, elegant and poetic

high baritone

A. A. and T. T.

hotel boys or postilions

male voices; they also constitute, if desired, a corps de ballet; there can be as many of them as needed

Negro Man and Negro Woman

rural labourers

reciting voices

Brother of Indiana Elliot

Mid West farmer of 1870


* This character also appears in Douglas Stuart Moore’s American opera The Devil and Daniel Webster, written in 1939, which contains fantastical elements.

** A lawyer and politician born in Danville, Vermont, named after General Tadeusz Kościuszko, a hero of the American War of Independence.

*** According to Rodney Lister, this represents Joseph Barry, an American soldier friend of Gertrude Stein (Lister, ‘Another completely interesting opera’).

The libretto of The Mother of Us All includes rhetorical figures. There are plays on words and numerous lexical parallelisms. There are words repeated within a given passage of the text that should be regarded as key words (e.g. ‘right’ in Act 1 scene 1, nos. 9–10, ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ in Act 1 scene 1, nos. 91–92 and 94–97). The writer also introduces metagrams, homonyms, antonyms and assonance. A homonym may be discerned in the opera’s title: when written in capitals, the word ‘Us’ may be read as ‘US’ – short for the United States. Selected examples of the use of rhetorical figures in the libretto of The Mother of Us All are given in Tab. 2.

Tab. 2: Selected examples of the use of rhetorical figures in the libretto of the opera The Mother of Us All


Rhetorical figure

Example of its use in the libretto of the opera

The Mother of Us All


Words from the same family placed close together

Daniel Webster: ‘I cannot kneel, my knees are not

kneeling knees’ (Act 1 scene 5, no. 117)



Constance Fletcher: ‘Antagonizes is a pleasant name, antagonizes is a pleasant word, antagonizes has occurred, bless you all and one.’ (Act 1 scene 3, no. 61)



John Adams: ‘Whenever I hear anyone say of course, do I deny it. Yes I do deny it whenever I hear anyone say of course I deny it, I do deny it.’ (Act 1 scene 2, no. 38)


Lexical parallelism, involving the repetition of the same expression

Virgil T.: ‘very softly, very softly’ (Act 1 scene 1, nos. 4–5)



Ulysses S. Grant: ‘He knew that his name was not Eisenhower. Yes he knew it. He did know it.’ (Act 1 scene 2, no. 42)



Susan B. Anthony: ‘men are so conservative, so selfish, so boresome, and they are so ugly, and they are so gullible’ (Act 1 scene 1, no. 6)



Anne: ‘The vote, women have the vote’ (Act 2 scene 3, no. 229)


Lexical parallelism involving the immediate repetition of a word

John Adams: ‘dear dear Miss Constance Fletcher’ (Act 1 scene 3, no. 62)



Gertrude S.: ‘Susan B. was right, she said she was right and she was right.’ Virgil T.: ‘She was right because she was right.’ (Act 1 scene 1, no. 9)


Symmetrical pattern of expressions

Getrude S.: ‘It is easy to be right.’ Virgil T.: ‘Ev’rybody else is wrong.’

Gertrude S.: ‘It is easy to be right’ (Act 1 scene 1, nos. 9–10)

Chorus: ‘dear Susan B. Anthony dear’ (Act 2 scene 2, no. 222)



Susan B. Anthony: ‘Hush, I hush, you hush, they hush, we hush. Hush.’ (Act 1 scene 2, no. 40)

Jo the Loiterer: ‘I like a mouse.’ Angel More: ‘I hate mice.’ (Act 1 scene 2, no. 57)

Daniel Webster: ‘Angel More can you will you

shall you may you might you would you hear me’

(Act 2 scene 3, no. 243)


Juxtaposing the same content in the form of an indicative sentence and a question

Susan B. Anthony: ‘Shall I protest? Not while I live and breathe. I shall protest. Shall I protest?’ (Act 1 scene 2, nos. 55–56)


Rhyming verse

Jo the Loiterer: ‘she will not take my name she says it is not all the same, she says that she is Indiana Elliot and that I am Jo, and that she will not take my name and that she will always tell me so.’ (Act 2 scene 1, nos. 151–152)


Rhymes for selected words

Constance Fletcher: ‘blind as a bat, curled as a hat’ (Act 1 scene 2, no. 39)



Daniel Webster: ‘He digged a pit, he digged it deep, he digged it for his brother. Into the pit he did fall in, the pit he digged for his brother.’ (Act 1 scene 2, no. 17)



Jo the Loiterer: ‘I want to tell.’ Chris the Citizen: ‘Very well.’

Jo the Loiterer: ‘I want to tell, oh hell.’ (Act 1 scene 2, no. 25)

Jenny Reefer: ‘Oh wonderful day I know what you will say’ (Act 2 scene 2, no. 198)



Thaddeus Stevens: ‘I will have my will.’ (Act 1 scene 3, no. 60)

Daniel Webster: ‘Angel More, more more Angel More’ (Act 2 scene 3, no. 241)



Repeated use of words: asleep/awake, rich/poor, wealth/poverty (Act 1 scene 4)

Use in close proximity of words: half slave/half free, marry/divorce, civil/religious, past one/present one, renunciation/abundance (Act 1 scene 5)

The main protagonist of The Mother of Us All, Susan B. Anthony, lived in the years 1820–1906. The long life of this indefatigable campaigner for the right to vote for American women, and also for the rights of Afro-Americans in the United States, gave rise to a number of important initiatives, including the founding (with Elizabeth Cady Stanton) of the Women’s Loyal National League (1863), the American Equal Rights Association (1866) and the National Woman Suffrage Association (1869), fused in 1890 with the American Woman Suffrage Association to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, of which Anthony was president in the years 1892–1900. She left many writings on the suffragette movement and penned the first four ←24 | 25→←25 | 26→volumes of the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage (co-authors Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda J. Gage).

Making a political activist fighting for women’s rights the heroine of an opera was an innovative move. In the tradition of opera music, from the seventeenth century onwards, women’s figures in historical, political and social operas were most often rulers (Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I in operas by Donizetti) or wives of reigning monarchs (Ottavia and Poppea in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Rodelinda in Handel’s opera), representatives of lower social strata, often ill-used by fate (Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Halka in Moniuszko’s opera), ←26 | 27→aristocratic women bathing in luxury (the Feldmarshallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier), and sometimes individuals of dubious reputation (Manon in the operas by Massenet and Puccini, Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème). In the context of this colourful procession of characters, Virgil Thomson broke the established operatic conventions and introduced a new type of heroine: a female political activist, fighting through various forms of social activism and with the assistance of other activists within her orbit. The opera idealises the character of Susan B. Anthony. The succinctness and logic of her utterances is contrasted in the opera with the flowery, puffed-up style of the politicians.37

In his preface to an edition of the score of The Mother of Us All, the author of the scenario, Maurice Grosser, stresses that the sets of the work should show nineteenth-century America, without indicating the exact decade, but that the costumes should exactly reflect the region, decade and social background of particular characters. In his opinion, such an approach to the work’s visual layer would create a spectacle ‘no more anachronistic than that suggested to the mind by the perusal of a volume of old photographs’.38

1.2.2 Polystylism in the musical fabric of the opera

The life and work of Susan B. Anthony took in the years of the American Civil War (1861–1865), as is clearly shown in the score of the opera The Mother of Us All. The composer introduces a march rhythm (underscored by short ‘broken’ tutti chords, divided by rests, in the orchestral accompaniment and by a dotted rhythm, e.g. the opening bars of Act 1 scene 1, the start of Act 2 scene 2 and the opening bars of Act 2 scene 3, where a characteristic structure is used: tutti chords repeated regularly on the first beat of a bar are preceded by a short rhythmic value played on a weak beat). Fanfare motifs occur in the opera, played by the frequently appearing solo trumpet (used already in the overture), and a snare drum tremolo is used to add colour. The opera features participants in the Civil War: the only authentic figure is General Ulysses S. Grant (bass-baritone), celebrated for leading the Union army to victory in battles with the Confederate army (including the capture of Vicksburg and the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863 and the Battle of Appomattox Court House in 1865), whilst from 1869 to 1877 he ←27 | 28→was the eighteenth President of the United States.39 There are also two fictional Civil War veterans: Jo the Loiterer (tenor) and Chris the Citizen (baritone).

Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All adheres to the current of neoclassicism in music, which was important for the development of American and European music of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. As Jadwiga Paja-Stach notes, Thomson combined in his output influences from American and European (especially French) musical culture.40 Paja-Stach draws attention to the polygeneity of Thomson’s compositional style, which displays a variety of elements: from modal polyphony to Baptist hymns and the rhythms of popular dances (waltz, tango), and she also indicates links between Thomson’s musical style and the style of the French composer Erik Satie (simple musical means, elements of musical comedy).

The polygenetic aspect of Thomson’s style is excellently conveyed by the score of The Mother of Us All, which bears features of par excellence twentieth-century opera, although one can discern influences from the tradition of Romantic opera, expressed in the opera’s macrostructure. The opera is in two acts, preceded by a prologue and ending with an epilogue. Both the acts begin with orchestral passages, which contain motifs important to the later development of the opera. The long first act consists of five scenes, whilst Act 2 comprises three scenes. The composer often employs recitative, as well as monologue and dialogue between the main characters; choral parts are rare, possibly due to the influence of Wagnerian drama. In terms of harmonic language, this opera is quite conservative, with a preference for diatonic structures; chromaticisation of harmonic structures is quite rare. One feature of the opera’s harmonic writing is frequent modulatory deviation, which disrupts the flow of the vocal cantilena. At times, the frequency of tonal changes is linked to the elements of musical comedy employed in the opera, and also to the emphasis on the loftiness of the verbal content in the solemn musical climax.

←28 | 29→

The choral climax to Act 2 of the opera occurs towards the end of the second scene, set in the living room of Susan B. Anthony’s home. This scene begins with an enthusiastic song by Anne (Susan B.’s companion), expressing her delight at Anthony’s success at a political meeting and the effect of her words on the listeners gathered there (‘Oh it was wonderful, wonderful, they listened to nobody the way they listen to you’). Thanks to Anthony, the word ‘male’ was added as an amendment to the US Constitution.41 The cheerful expression of Anne’s song is achieved by the composer through the use of a major key and lively, dotted rhythms. The closing section of scene 2 (no. 220, from the segment in A flat major, to no. 225) is a kind of apotheosis. It may be termed a choral hymn to Anthony, emphasising the goals for which she fought and the success she achieved (‘she worked for the vote for women and she worked for the vote for colored men and she was so successful, they wrote the word male into the constitution of the United States of America’).42 So the chorus in this section (as throughout the opera) comments on the events. The melodic writing of the vocal parts is syllabic, since the most important aspect of this section is the verbal message, underscored by the chorus’s melodious singing, based on fluent, ostinato rhythmic structures (the smoothness of the rhythm is emphasised by the use of a metre) and consonant intervals in the harmonies of the vocal parts (thirds, sixths and fifths or fourths as chord members).

In the formal structure of the hymn, one can distinguish four segments (ABB1A1), of which A1 constitutes a coda referring melodically to A.

←29 | 30→

So the formal design of the chorus is symmetrical. The formal division into sections A and B is dictated by the harmonic writing: section A adheres wholly to the key of A flat major. It forms an eight-bar parallel period. The eight-bar section B (beginning with the words ‘worked for the vote for women’) is also a parallel period. The fourteen-bar section B1 is distinguished on the basis of both its rhythm and its harmony. Beginning with the words ‘into the constitution of the United States’, its first four bars refer to the rhythm that characterises section B (e.g. at the start of that section: in the first bar, four quavers, quaver rest and quaver; in the second bar, two quavers). B1 begins with the rhythm in the melody sung by the chorus: in the first bar, three quavers, crotchet and quaver; in the second bar, two quavers. So the rhythm is almost identical to that at the start of section B, the modification involving the replacement of the quaver rest with an extension of the quaver to the value of a crotchet. The third and fourth bars of B1 contain a different variant of this rhythm, preceded by three quavers ending the second bar. Section B1 may be divided into two sub-sections: a four-bar unit c (in B major, referring rhythmically to section B) and a ten-bar unit d, characterised by considerable harmonic flux: it passes through the keys of E major, F major and G flat major, led in a rising tonal progression, which adds lustre to the words ‘dear Susan B. Anthony dear’, repeated in ostinato fashion. One may note in this compositional procedure a reference to the Baroque rhetorical figure known as climax. Example 1 shows how the harmony alters in section B1 of the choral hymn in Act 2 scene 2.

Example 1: Virgil Thomson, The Mother of Us All, tonal progression (E, F, G flat) in the ending of Act 2 scene 2, nos. 222–223.

A considerable role in distinguishing the particular sections in the choral part is played also by the dynamics. The chorus begins singing in piano, before the composer introduces crescendo poco a poco, which acts over six bars, up to fortissimo in section B. Towards the end of section B1, the dynamic swells to forte fortissimo, in a short interlude played by the orchestral tutti, and then (in the coda) the chorus’s song returns in piano, summarising the content of the previous segment; crescendo returns, and the dynamic grows to fortissimo on the words ‘so successful’, repeated ostinato at the end of the chorus. Thus the power of the chorus’s sound is reinforced by a fortissimo dynamic on the most important words sung by the chorus, picking out Anthony’s services, from the start of section B up to section B1 (passing at the end of B1 into forte fortissimo), in contrast to the piano dynamic used for the start of sections A and A1. The twenty-two-bar section A1, beginning with a short instrumental passage with chromaticism, is ←30 | 31→←31 | 32→structurally uniform, characterised by its evolutional course, and no lower-order segments can be distinguished within it. It is dominated by cadencing that is typical of the idiom of a Classical-Romantic coda. In the choral part, the composer employs the basic harmonic functions: tonic, subdominant and dominant. The sopranos’ melody that occurs in the first five bars of this section clearly refers to the opening melody in section A. Introduced here is a variant of the motif of Susan B. Anthony, with the use of a triplet rhythm.43 The opening key of A flat major, occurring in sections A and B, also returns. The glorification of Susan B. Anthony in the monumental chorus in Act 2 scene 2 marks the climax of that scene, and at the same time the climax of the opera as a whole.

However, the frequent key changes that occur in the opera The Mother of Us All are counterbalanced by an aspiration to motivic unity through the invocation of characteristic melodic paradigms in both the solo and the choral parts. Polytonality also appears sporadically in this work. Characteristic of the opera’s melodic writing, meanwhile, is the use of motifs and phrases based on the notes of spread triads, which lend the vocal phrases an instrumental character and also have an adverse effect on their smoothness. Yet the melodiousness (despite the instrumental character) of the motifs used by the composer in the vocal parts, characterised by the expression of simplicity, combined with the clear texture of the orchestral accompaniment, lends them an original character. The composer’s marked predilection for using spread chords in a melody may be linked to an intention of conveying in the opera’s music echoes of the times of war, with characteristic trumpet fanfares calling to arms.

The simplicity of the melodic writing results from the composer’s use of three paradigms in the vocal parts: paradigm a, involving the introduction of motifs based mainly on spread triads (both in the choral parts and in the monologues and dialogues), paradigm b, recitative based frequently on the repetition of single notes (this recitative type of vocal part also appears in the dialogues) and the least frequent paradigm c, consisting of short spoken interjections. Motifs and phrases based on spread triads play a large role in the trio of Andrew Johnson, Thaddeus Stevens and Daniel Webster in Act 1 scene 4, which constitutes, together with the part of Susan B. Anthony that dialogues with it, a closed formal whole, which the composer labels ‘Third Dream’.44 The wealth of ←32 | 33→melodic structures based on the idea of a spread triad is no doubt intended to underscore the satirical character of the text with somewhat pompous music, on the politicians’ words ‘We are the V.I.P., the very important persons, we have special rights’. The musical comedy is expressed in the trio also through the use of imitation technique (the trio even contains a short two-part canon), which is meant to further emphasise the ‘bombastic’ character of the singing politicians that is stressed in the text.

The ‘Third Dream’ scene has a four-part formal structure:

The sections of this scene are distinguished on the basis of key, texture and motivic material. The large section A is based on homophonic texture, whilst a quasi-polyphonic texture appears in the vocal parts in sections B, C and C1. Smaller units within section A are distinguished according to key and the disposition of the parts. Units a, b and a1 are composed in the key of A major, unit c in F major. In units a and a1 (motivically related), a trio of politicians sings, whilst the simple ‘soldierly’ character of their parts is underscored by their sharp melodic contour and the characteristic sound of the trumpet that accompanies it, joined in unit a1 by a drum. Introduced in the short unit b is a soprano song. Unit c is distinguished on the basis of a change of key and the introduction of a soprano part. In this section, Susan B. Anthony pronounces her political credo: ‘no word or act of mine may lessen the might of this country in the scale of truth and right’. The last work of that phrase (‘right’) is underscored by the use of a forte fortissimo dynamic in the melodic climax. The B section that occurs later displays a strong dynamic contrast with the last unit of section A, through the appearance of a piano dynamic and a change of metre from to .

In sections B, C and C1, on account of their inner cohesion, resulting from the use in the vocal parts of imitation technique, no smaller units can be distinguished. Section C is distinguished on the basis of a change in key from F major to B flat major and the appearance in the part of Andrew Johnson of a characteristic motif containing a spread B flat major triad. Another variant of this motif (appearing in the part of Thaddeus Stevens), containing notes of a B flat major chord, begins the coda section C1, which features characteristic cadencing based on the alternating occurrence of chords of the dominant and the tonic in the key ←33 | 34→of B flat major. A substantial role in the ‘V.I.P.’ trio is played by structures based on a spread triad. Also frequently introduced is a paradigm involving the repetition of the same note (occurring in all three parts sung by male voices).

In the musical fabric of The Mother of Us All, one may distinguish a characteristic melodic structure in which the idea of a spread triad occurs. Its form in the choral part (soprano) in in Act 2 scene 2 (no. 220), on the words ‘Susan B. Anthony’, may be regarded as the basic version of this structure. This version is characterised by simple and smooth melody and rhythm (only quavers are used, except for a single instance of a dotted quaver with semiquaver). This is a binary structure, which can be divided into two three-note musical motifs. The first of them is a deviation from the basic note a1 downwards by a fourth; the second motif is based on successive notes in the scale and is characterised by a falling direction to the melody. This structure appears in the opera in sixteen different melorhythmic and colouristic variants, and it is reduced either to a single motif or to a musical phrase comprising two motifs, which integrates the whole work. On account of the composer’s frequent association of this structure with the figure of the opera’s main heroine, it may be defined as the ‘Susan B. Anthony motif’ (it appears both in parts sung by Anthony and in the parts of other singers or the chorus that are linked to that character in terms of content). In Example 2, the Susan B. Anthony motif is shown together with its sixteen variants appearing in the opera.

Phrases based on this structure come thick and fast in Act 2 (twelve variants and the basic form of the structure). In Act 1, it occurs much less often (four variants). Numerous elements of this structure undergo variant changes. The first of them concerns the metre: in variants 1 and 2, in variant 3 and in variant 4. Yet it is most often shown in (variants 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 15 and 16) and (variants 9, 10, 13 and 14). The composer introduces numerous rhythmic modifications (a characteristic triple rhythm in variants 1, 2, 4, 12, 15 and 16, dividing the structure with a rest in variants 5, 6, 7 and 8, beginning the structure with an anacrusis in variants 1, 8, 13 and 16, introducing a syncopated rhythm in variant 11, simplifying the rhythm to uniform rhythmic values in variant 3, introducing a dotted rhythm in the first part of the structure in variant 8). Melodic changes are rarely employed (adding an extra note to the structure preceding it in variant 8, adding an extra note to the structure preceding it together with shortening it by removing the last note in variant 1, taking off the last note in variant 10, repeating one of the notes combined with removing the last note in variant 6, adding an extra note between the structure’s two component motifs in variant 7). Yet those are minor alterations, involving the removal, addition or ←34 | 35→repetition of a note, so the overall melodic contour of the structure is still easily recognisable. In the last scene of Act 2, the composer introduces a minor-mode variant of the structure in variant 16 on the words ‘we cannot retrace our steps’, sung by Susan B. Anthony. The way in which this structure is treated in The Mother of Us All may indicate an affinity with the leitmotiv technique employed in Wagner’s operas, where the leitmotivs are shown in different colouristic versions through the introduction of changes in harmony and instrumentation. The composer’s frequent association of this structure with the character of Susan B. Anthony may also suggest links to that technique. However, given that this structure sometimes appears on words not related to Anthony’s character (Act 1 scene 4, no. 88; Act 2 scene 1, no. 149) and that there are no other structures in this opera that could be regarded as leitmotivs, this may not be regarded as a typical leitmotiv.

Example 2: Virgil Thomson’s opera The Mother of Us All, Susan B. Anthony’s motif and its sixteen variants.

The rhythms in The Mother of Us All are not very varied. Thomson often uses ostinato structures. The rhythmic monotony is sometimes linked to the ‘soldierly’ march-like character of the music (e.g. Act 1 scene 2 begins with a passage Alla marcia). At times, however, the composer uses successive polymetre (e.g. in Act 1 scene 4, where we find such metres as , , , , , , and in close proximity to one another). The idiom of simplicity that dominates the opera’s rhythm is manifest in the composer’s preference for uncomplicated rhythms and the frequent use of triplets and dotted rhythms, which vary the rhythm, usually based on uniform repeated rhythmic values. An interesting use of triplets appears in Susan’s arioso in Act 1 scene 2 of the opera (‘A political meeting’). This serves as a kind of ‘prop’, thanks to which the composer ‘superimposes’ a waltz idiom (obtaining the auditory impression of a triple metre) onto a musical structure in .

Innovative features can be found in several elements in The Mother of Us All: the disposition of the vocal parts, the tone colour (not infrequently referring to the achievements of musical impressionism) and the articulation. Particularly interesting is a disposition of voices showing an affinity with the type of the ‘conversation opera’ that appears in the operatic output of Richard Strauss. The Mother of Us All is dominated by monologues and dialogues of the principal characters, representing conversations they are having; ensemble scenes and choral parts, rooted in the tradition of operatic music, rarely appear. One prime example of an innovative disposition of voices in Thomson’s opera is Act 1 scene 2, representing a political meeting. The meeting is held in a tent, in which a podium has been installed for the speaker. On the podium, there are two chairs, a table with flowers, a jug of water and glasses, and also a hammer used ←36 | 37→←35 | 36→←37 | 38→to signal the end of the debate.45 The topic discussed is political and economic injustice. The procession of politicians to appear on the stage comprises Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, John Adams, Daniel Webster, Anthony Comstock and Thaddeus Stevens. Susan B. Anthony also takes part in the debate. The clear predominance of dialogues over other forms of voice disposition in Act 1 scene 2 is shown in Tab. 3.

Tab. 3: Disposition of vocal parts in the scene ‘A political meeting’ (Act 1 scene 2). Virgil Thomson, The Mother of Us All

In the domain of tone colour, the composer introduces a number of interesting solutions in this opera. Solo instruments are frequently used, with characteristic devices, such as fanfare motifs from a trumpet and a snare drum tremolo; other instruments used solo include clarinet and bassoon. In terms of articulation, the composer employs harp glissando and violin glissando to obtain an interesting tone colour (Act 1 scene 3, orchestral introduction).

To sum up, the musical style of The Mother of Us All combines the composer’s simplification of such elements as rhythm, melody and motifs with varied harmonies, shimmering with the shades of different keys. Of considerable significance are the stylisations of American hymns and songs, as well as passages written in the style of a Viennese waltz. In its reference to different genres of popular music (gospel hymns, marches, ballads, ditties, and even sermon intonations46), the opera’s music, like its libretto, displays considerable similarity to collage technique in painting.

In this opera, one can distinguish six idioms that are characteristic of Thomson’s compositional style:

1. March idiom, the obvious provenance of which consists of military songs in march rhythms sung during the Civil War (e.g. ‘Dixie’, ‘Yankee Doodle’), involving the composer imparting a march-like character to various musical passages by introducing a duple metre, dotted rhythm and orchestral accompaniment in regular rhythmic values (e.g. Act 1 scene 1, Prologue, bars 1–7). Occasionally the march-like character of a passage is served by the introduction of the term Alla marcia (e.g. Act 2 scene 2, nos. 194–197 and 208–215).

2. Military idiom, of an identical provenance, involving horizontal melodic passages dominated by progressions along notes of a spread triad, of a fanfare character, triggering associations with a trumpet calling soldiers to ←38 | 39→←39 | 40→battle (e.g. trio of Andrew Johnson, Thaddeus Stevens and Daniel Webster, Act 1 scene 4, nos. 88–90).

3. Song idiom, involving sung melody characterised by tunefulness and simplicity of melody and rhythm. Its provenance can be sought also in American songs of the Civil War period, such as ‘Aura Lee’ and others (one example is Daniel Webster’s arioso from Act 2 scene 3, nos. 241–243).

4. Hymn idiom, derived from the tradition of American hymns, involving stylised music, of a hymn- or chant-like character (e.g. orchestral introduction to Act 1 scene 5, nos. 99–102, and Susan’s arioso that follows immediately afterwards, nos. 102–104).

5. Dance idiom, expressed in the frequent use of a stylised waltz – a dance at the height of its popularity during the nineteenth century. Virgil Thomson composed waltzes (e.g. The Mayor LaGuardia Waltzes for orchestra, At the Beach, a concert waltz for trumpet and instrumental ensemble), and he also introduced this dance into various works that he wrote (e.g. two strings quartets, ten piano etudes). In The Mother of Us All, a waltz appears in the form of the orchestra’s accompaniment to a dance performed on the stage (Act 1 scene 3, nos. 67–70) and in the form of a song composed in waltz rhythm, e.g. Lillian Russell’s arioso (nos. 199–201) and John Adams’s arioso (nos. 203–205) in Act 2 scene 2.

6. Parlando idiom, involving the introduction of spoken parts, and also parts of recitatives imitating the sound of lively speech, in which a considerable role is played by note repetition.

The dense tonal and metric changes in The Mother of Us All are shown in Tab. 4, which contains a schema of the opera’s form. Similarly diverse are the rhetorical figures in the work’s verbal layer that appear regularly in all the scenes of the opera. In Act I, there are four discernible phases of development: Introduction, in which the work’s main heroine is presented, Evolution, which begins with the stormy scene of a political rally, an oneiric Meditation phase (this consists of three parts: First Dream, showing Susan B. Anthony’s discussion with a Negro Man and a Negro Woman representing the black community, Second Dream, in which the character of Donald Gallup is introduced, and Third Dream, a comic trio of politicians, interrupted by comments made by Susan B. Anthony) and Climax I, which occurs in the finale of Act I, where the idioms of hymn, Viennese waltz and march are brought together. Act II begins with an Evolution – a scene played out in Susan B. Anthony’s living room, showing the lack of understanding in American society for the ideas she proclaims (‘nothing will make you pass my laws’); in this scene, Anthony, urged by various characters in the opera (Indiana ←42 | 43→←41 | 42→←40 | 41→←43 | 44→Elliott, Andrew Johnson and Thaddeus Stevens) to meet the politicians and give a speech, hesitates. At first she refuses, but she ultimately decides to take part in the meeting. The opera culminates with Act II scene 2 (Climax 2), which shows Anthony’s success. The final scene, which occurs after the heroine’s death, forms a kind of Conclusion, since the libretto speaks of the tangible effects of Anthony’s work, that is, women’s right to vote. This scene features the unveiling of a monument to Anthony and her fellow suffragettes, which is accompanied by a monologue sung by Anthony as a statue. The Mother of Us All, combining traditional elements of a dramatic operatic work with an unconventional, innovative libretto, and also displaying a strong national aspect in both the music and the book, is one of the most original operatic works of the twentieth century.

Tab. 4: Virgil Thomson, The Mother of Us All. Formal scheme of the opera

1.3 American music drama: Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul (1949)

The post-war chapter in the history of American political opera opens with one of the most famous operas of the twentieth century: The Consul.47 Its composer, the Italian-born American Gian Carlo Menotti (1911–2007), was one of the most important figures in the history of twentieth-century American opera. He composed numerous operas, the premieres of which were held both in America (Philadelphia, New York, Bloomington, Chicago, San Diego, Washington) and in Europe (Brussels, Paris, Hamburg). He also worked as an opera director, preparing productions for his Festival Dei Due Mondi in Spoleto from 1958 to 1967. In 1977, he founded an American equivalent: the Spoleto Festival USA, in Charleston (South Carolina). He wrote his first opera (The Death of Pierrot) aged just eleven. Hugely popular was his television Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors.

←44 | 45→

In the music drama The Consul, for which he wrote both the music and the book, Menotti took up a subject related to contemporary political affairs. The origins of this work, regarded as his most outstanding opera,48 are marked by a note published in the press on 12 February 1947 informing readers of the suicide of a Polish female emigrant at the news that she had been refused a visa for the United States.49 The work is in three acts, each of which is divided into two scenes. The opera is set in an unidentified totalitarian European state. The composer employs a division into scenes that is typical of the music drama, lending them particular significance in sustaining the tension from beginning to end. This opera is interpreted as a work portraying the universal drama of the individual (the principal heroine, Magda Sorel), attempting to leave a totalitarian state to join her freedom-fighter husband, regarded by the regime as an enemy of the state, who is fleeing from the secret police. Zbigniew Skowron aptly compares the heroine’s plight to the poetic of ancient tragedy, ‘the protagonists of which cannot escape the sentences of fate’.50 Nothing can prevent the sequence of misfortunes: the death of the heroine’s child, the continuous, hopeless battle with the bureaucratic machinery and Magda’s suicide. Thus the dramatic aspect is very much to the fore in this work, and the tension is continually sustained by showing Magda Sorel’s struggles with the soulless bureaucracy, personified by the character of the Secretary, who prevents her from seeing the Consul, piles up obstacles, hands Magda forms to fill in and postpones her appointment. Unusually, the titular hero of the opera, the Consul, does not physically appear on the stage even once. At the point when the Consul is finally about to receive Magda, the previous visitor leaves his office; it turns out that the visitor is the Secret Police Agent hunting for her husband John; on seeing him, Magda faints.

The dominance of such elements of dramatic form in this opera as monologue and dialogue and the highlighting of the dramatic element in the work’s plot and music point to an affinity with Wagnerian drama. There are also ensemble parts (e.g. a trio of John, Magda and the Mother at the end of Act 1 scene 1, ‘Now, O lips, say goodbye’). The composer also refers to Wagnerian leitmotiv technique. The use in Magda’s aria ‘To this we’ve come’ in Act 3 of a motif first introduced in Act 1 and recurring further into the work is undoubtedly a distant echo of that technique. The role of a leitmotiv is played by a melodious French song ←45 | 46→(composed by Menotti) that appears in Acts 1 and 2, whilst its motifs appear in the orchestra part in Act 3, in the scene of Magda’s suicide. Also returning in that scene (containing visions that appear to the dying Magda) are the head motif of the trio ‘Now, O lips, say goodbye’ and the dotted march-like theme familiar from the orchestral introduction to the opera. The opera genre is referred to, meanwhile, by the song ‘I shall find for you shells and stars’, sung by the Mother over the sleeping child’s cradle in Act 2, of an aria-like form, and also by Magda’s aria ‘To this we’ve come’, from Act 2. The music of this opera is characterised by an often tragic expression, underscoring the drama of the plot. In Act 1 scene 1 (set in Magda’s flat), the melody of a French song played on a gramophone that reaches the stage from a nearby café does not bring a fall in the tension. This melody returns in Act 2 scene 1, and it only aggravates Magda, absorbed as she is in her problems (‘Oh, that song! Again and again… They drive me crazy’). The cheerful character of the magician Nicholas Magadoff, who appears in Act 1 scene 2, demonstrating magic tricks at the consulate, also fails to bring a change of mood. The magician, like Magda and others waiting their turn, is bored by the constant struggle against the office reality and the endless waiting. Together with Magda, Vera Boronel, Anna Gomez and Kofner, he sings in a quintet in the finale of this scene (‘In endless waiting rooms’).

The style of Menotti’s operas has been compared to the veristic operas of Giacomo Puccini.51 Józef Chomiński, writing about the verismo operas Cavalleria rusticana (Pietro Mascagni) and Pagliacci (Ruggiero Leoncavallo), defines their structural premises as ‘realism in content and traditionalism in musical form’, emphasising at the same time their influences from Verdi (melodic writing) and Wagner (leitmotivs).52 The melodic writing in Menotti’s The Consul is characterised by a Verdian songfulness, yet marked with a singular ‘sweetness’ of sound, suggesting associations with the scores of Massenet’s lyric operas, on one hand, and with the song idiom of American musicals, on the other. The Consul was a great success both in the United States (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, 270 performances) and in Europe, where it was staged in opera houses in London, Zurich, Berlin, Vienna, Milan, Poznań and elsewhere.53 ←46 | 47→The first performer of the role of Magda Sorel was Patricia Neway (1919–2012), an American singer (dramatic soprano) who produced an outstanding, unforgettable creation. She appeared in the work’s premiere in Philadelphia and also in productions in London, Paris and New York. For this role, in 1950, she received the Donaldson Award for best actress in a musical. She also performed on the Decca recording of the opera and in the version shown as a television film in 1960 (released on DVD in 2004).

Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul represents a distant echo of Wagnerian drama, the influence of which – like that of the works of Verdi and Puccini – extended into the first half of the twentieth century. It is also testimony to the times in which it was written: the post-war years and the period of the Cold War. Yet its critique of the American State (the premiere was held during the period of McCarthyism in the US) did not adversely affect the reception of this work, which won huge global success and became a fixture of the operatic repertoire during the twentieth century.54

The 60s and the first half of the 70s brought the emergence and development of a new trend in twentieth-century music, namely, minimalism, in which Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass tended mainly towards instrumental works, which represent prime examples of minimalist techniques, such as Reich’s Piano Phase and Glass’s Music in Similar Motion.55 A vocal part is sometimes introduced in instrumental works, but it is treated in an instrumental way (e.g. Reich’s Drumming, Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts) or appears in the form of speech recorded onto tape (Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain). That was a time of musical experimentation and the work of important ensembles: ONCE (founded by Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma) and MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva), active in Rome from 1966 to 1971, whose members included Frederic Rzewski. In America, also cultivated at that time were varieties of stage music, and full-length operas were written (e.g. Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, after John Steinbeck, and Menotti’s The Most Important Man), yet an important place was held by small forms, such as Menotti’s chamber operas Labyrinth, Martin’s Lie and Tamu-Tamu (The Guests), and by innovative experimental genres, including unusual and sometimes weird happenings (e.g. La Monte Young’s Compositions ←47 | 48→1960, written mainly in the form of verbal scores), and also multimedia works. It was only in later years that composers linked to musical minimalism – Reich, Glass and Riley – turned towards the opera genre, whilst Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, written in 1976, launched a renaissance of opera on social themes in American music.

←48 | 49→

6 Wallace Brockway and Herbert Weinstock write: ‘It is sad that the work that might, by some stretching of the term, be called the first American opera survives, like Peri’s Dafne, only in its text.’ (Brockway and Weinstock, The World of Opera, 373). Kate van Winkle Keller and John Koegel mention the comic opera The Disappointment, written over a decade earlier, in 1767, by one Andrew Barton (the pseudonym of a composer working in Philadelphia), which was a social satire; however, that opera was not staged (Van Winkle Keller and Koegel, Secular Music to 1800, 71).

7 Chase, America’s Music, 100.

8 Note placed in Freeman’s Journal of 19 December 1781; quoted in Chase, America’s Music, 101.

9 Sonneck, Francis Hopkinson, 110. The American musicologist and composer Oscar Sonneck (1873–1928) wrote numerous works on the history of eighteenth-century American music (incl. Early Opera in America, New York 1915) and from the field of music biography.

10 Kowal, ‘Gay John’, 251.

11 Hitchcock, Music in the United States, 92. The author employs here one of the two terms introduced in his work to define the two great traditions in American music: the first was the ‘cultivated tradition’, which denoted consciously cultivated, rather exotic, music characterised by the appearance of moral and spiritual values; the other was the more accessible ‘vernacular tradition’, referring to more plebeian music, composed for functional purposes or for entertainment (ibid., 51).

12 Chase, America’s Music, 329.

13 This term appears in Wiley Hitchcock’s Music in the United States (132–135). The author uses the term First New England School for American composers who from the 1770s onwards produced songbooks containing anthems, canons, patriotic songs, psalms and hymns (ibid., 9–22).

14 Piano score published by Breitkopf & Härtel of Leipzig in 1901 (with English text and German translation by Karl Pflueger); first concert performance in Boston in 1903.

15 Written in Boston, in 1894, with a libretto by Robert Ayres Barnet, first performed in Boston in 1894.

16 Written in 1899–1900 to a libretto by William Chauncy Langdon, first performed at Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1901, piano score published by Schirmer of New York in 1901.

17 Written in 1912 to a libretto by David Kilburn Stevens after a story by G. W. Chadwick, first performed (concert rendition) at Thomaston Opera House, Connecticut, in 1995.

18 Libretto by David Kilburn Stevens, published by C. C. Birchard of Boston c.1917, first performed in Chicago in 1923.

19 http://usopera.com/composes/converse.html, accessed 28 June 2014.

20 The composer described his work as a ‘grand romantic opera in one act’.

21 Skowron, Nowa muzyka amerykańska, 233.

22 Anna G. Piotrowska writes: ‘The presence of the idea of a work of national connotations was only fully confirmed in 1935 with the emergence of the “American Opera”. That was the term used by George Gershwin for his opera Porgy and Bess’. Piotrowska, Idea, 163.

23 Aaron Copland, ‘Thomson and Blitzstein’, in The New Music, 135; repr. as ‘Virgil Thomson and Marc Blitzstein (1940, 1968)’, in Aaron Copland: A Reader, 202.

24 Skowron, Nowa muzyka amerykańska, 233–241 (chapter ‘Opera jako narzędzie społecznego komentarza – Marc Blitzstein i Virgil Thomson’ [Opera as a tool for social commentary: Marc Blitzstein and Virgil Thomson].

25 Written in New York between October 1946 and March 1947 to a commission from the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University (1945–1946), with a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Forces: solo voices (characters and voice types given in the table on pp. 00–00), chorus and symphony orchestra (flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns in F, 2 trumpets, trombone, percussion, harp, piano, celesta, strings). In two acts (1h 30m), including Prologue (Act 1 scene 1) and Epilogue (Act 2 scene 3). First performed on 7 May 1947 at the Brander Matthews Hall in New York by the Columbia Theatre Association of Columbia University with the Columbia University Department of Music, conductor Otto Luening, scenario Maurice Grosser, direction John Taras, scenery and costumes Paul du Pont, cast incl. Dorothy Dow (Susan B. Anthony), Theresa Stich-Randall (Gertrude S.), Ruth Krug (Anne) and Bertram Rowe (Virgil T.), published by G. Schirmer of New York in 1947 (vocal score). An orchestral suite, composed in 1949, was first performed in Knoxville, Tennessee, on 17 January 1950 by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra under Virgil Thomson.

26 Zbigniew Maszewski, ‘Eksperymentalna proza amerykańska początku dwudziestego wieku’ [Experimental American prose of the early twentieth century], in Salska (ed.), Historia, 71.

27 Richard Jackson writes the following about this opera: ‘Though it never took a permanent place in the repertory, it is the composer’s most famous work’. Kirkpatrick et al., The New Grove Twentieth-Century American Masters, 58.

28 Virgil Thomson, quoted in Tommasini, Virgil Thomson, 382.

29 Ibid., 383.

30 Kirkpatrick et al., The New Grove Twentieth-Century American Masters, 61.

31 Skowron, Nowa muzyka amerykańska, 240.

32 Chapman, Making Noise, 216. In Act 1 scene 1, ‘A political meeting’, quotations from Daniel Webster’s ‘Second Reply to Hayne’ – a lengthy speech delivered to the US Senate on 26 and 27 January 1830 – were woven into that character’s lines in his debate with Susan B. Anthony.

33 This sculpture represents three suffragettes: Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Its official name is A Portrait Monument.

34 Thomson and Stein, The Mother of Us All, Opera in Two Acts, Piano/Vocal Score, 14.

35 Skowron, Nowa muzyka, 239.

36 This may be an allusion to Anne Howard Shaw (1847–1919), one of the leaders of the suffragette movement, who worked with Susan B. Anthony and was deputy president (1892–1904) and president (1904–1915) of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

37 Mary Chapman writes about this aspect of the opera: ‘Male political rhetoric contrasts sharply with the language produced by Susan B., which is more logical, more interactive, and more relevant to the opera’s themes as a whole’. Chapman, Making Noise, 213.

38 Thomson and Stein, The Mother of Us All, 13.

39 This figure also appears in another American opera: Philip Glass’s Appomattox, composed in 2007, which deals with the events at the end of the Civil War. The libretto of that work was written by Christopher Hampton, and it was premiered on 5 October 2007 at the San Francisco Opera. Another stage work linked thematically with the Civil War was the monumental opera the CIVIL WarS. A tree is best measured when it is down, in five parts (1981–1984). Directed by Robert Wilson, this work features music by different composers, including Philip Glass (music to the CIVIL WarS – Rome and fragments of the CIVIL WarS – Cologne), Gavin Bryars and David Byrne. This work was not completed; the first complete performances of four parts were given in different cities: Minneapolis, Rome, Rotterdam and Cologne.

40 Paja-Stach, ‘Thomson Virgil’, 87.

41 Amendment 14, in which this word was first introduced in expressions relating to the male electorate.

42 Mary Chapman (Making Noise, 214) draws attention, however, to the distortion of the content in the chorus part (personifying current politicians), to the detriment of Susan B. Anthony. The text sung by the chorus ascribes to Anthony influence over the language of the Fourteenth Amendment, granting citizenship to ‘All persons born or naturalized in the United States’, including Afro-Americans and former slaves. In reality, Anthony opposed the granting of voting rights to Afro-American males without that right being extended to Afro-American women as well. On the strength of the Fifteenth Amendment, however, only Afro-American males obtained the right to vote. In Chapman’s opinion, the chorus’s words ‘We are so grateful to Susan B. Anthony because she was so successful… they wrote the word male into the constitution of the USA’ exemplify inattention to Anthony’s words and their distortion by her contemporaries (Making Noise, 214).

43 This motif is profiled on pp. 36–37 of the present work.

44 The section entitled ‘Third Dream’, like the ‘First Dream’ and ‘Second Dream’ (musically joined into a single whole) that precede it, also adhering to an oneiric poetic, constitute separate sections within scene 4.

45 In accordance with the opera’s scenario, prepared by Maurice Grosser.

46 In the composer’s words, quoted in Chapman, Making Noise, 216.

47 Composed in 1949, to a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti. Parts: John Sorel (baritone), Magda Sorel (soprano), John’s Mother (alto), Secret Police Agent (bass), two Detectives (mute parts), The Consul’s Secretary (mezzo-soprano), Mr Kofner (bass-baritone), Foreign Woman (soprano), Anna Gomez (soprano), Vera Boronel (alto), Nika Magadoff, The Magician (tenor), Assan, a glass-cutter (baritone), Voice from a gramophone record (soprano), symphony orchestra (flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings). This work is in three acts and a performance lasts two hours. The premiere was given at the Schubert Theatre in Philadelphia on 1 March 1950, with a cast including Patricia Neway (Magda Sorel), Cornell McNeil (John), Marie Powers (Mother), Gloria Lane (Secretary) and Leon Lishner (Secret Police Agent). The libretto (c.1950) and vocal score (1995) were published by Schirmer of New York.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2019 (February)
political opera video-opera portrait opera documentary stage work opera with libretto of linguistic quality American music drama
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 206 p., 7 b/w tab.

Biographical notes

Joanna Miklaszewska (Author)

Joanna Miklaszewska , is Adjunct Professor at the University of Wrocław, in the Institute of Musicology. Her main fields of interest are: minimalism in Polish music, political opera, American music of the twentieth century and music lexicography. She is the author of several scientific publications on these topics and many entries in musical encyclopaedias.


Title: American Political Opera in the Twentieth Century