Overheard at Glimmerglass:

Jacques Barzun by Percentages

Jacques Barzun first came to Glimmerglass in the summer of 1989 at the urging of his close friends and former students, Bill Oliver and Michael Willis. I think he may also have been intrigued by the fact that we had put on a production of Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict, assuming that Glimmerglass might have some taste in common with the author of Berlioz and the Romantic Century, indeed with the man who had perhaps single-handedly resurrected the reputation of that great but then-neglected composer for 20th-century audiences. So he came up.

That was 18 years ago, and because he came up every summer for the next 15 years, and he has kept in close touch from San Antonio in one way or another since, it can be said that Glimmerglass has become an important part of that life for 18% of it. One of the many reasons we can all be grateful that Jacques is about to celebrate his 100th birthday — and so many of us around the country and the world are celebrating his life and extraordinary influence and achievements with him and Marguerite in these next three months — one of the many reasons to be grateful, although Jacques may not himself have considered this yet, is that it’s so easy to calculate percentages in the life of a centenarian.

Jacques became an important part of the lives of so many of us when, in 1993, he began his series of annual talks at Gala Weekend — talks now preserved, thank goodness, in two books published as Sidelights on Opera at Glimmerglass, ironically titled, I would suggest, because these sidelights brought full frontal prominence to the historical and cultural circumstances that gave birth to each opera he chose to illuminate. He delivered those enlightening, enchanting talks for thirteen years — or 13% of his lifetime thus far.

Another statistic. This season Glimmerglass is celebrating, with the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the four-hundredth anniversary of what is generally considered the beginning of opera in Mantua in 1607. Just think. Jacques will soon have experienced exactly 25% of that history in his lifetime.

Of course Jacques would have something far more informed and rounded to say about this anniversary. As a historian of brilliance and originality and flawless balance, Jacques sees history as evolution, not as a bumpy succession of dates and events. This is an excerpt from a talk he gave here in 1999:

To gain perspective on the marked changes of tone in recent operas, one should go back a certain distance, say, to Sophocles. Why Sophocles? Well, he stands for Greek tragedy, and thus for the true beginning of opera. The four plays that the Athenians went to see, once a year, consisted of a legendary plot, a group of songs, and dancing. Three of the pieces were tragic, the fourth was a musical comedy. The original goat song, which is what the word tragedy means, had developed actors, costumes, and a stage set. Dialogue in verse told the tale and a chorus sang lengthy lyrics while dancing. We keep speaking of Greek drama when we should say: Greek opera. It is tempting to add that here was the one instance when the libretto outshone the music, but all we know about the music fills only a few pages. What we are told by the Greeks themselves is that their musical modes expressed the different emotions in a powerful way, and that is the heart of opera.

This happy start was not followed up by the Romans. They were too matter-of-fact to enjoy make-believe.

And then, a little further on [p. 79]: Gluck went to Paris, bringing his Orpheus, when the heir to the French throne, the future Louis XVI, had married the Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette. Gluck was her music master and she his protector when the new opera caused a furor for and against. He had put his theory in the preface to the score and the battle of words was fierce. Arguing about art was becoming as engrossing as art itself. . . . Gluck now seems to some hearers stiff and formal, no begetter full of wild excitement. This impression shows how relative to time and place all esthetic judgments are.

Well, it’s Jacques who showed that to Glimmerglass for 13 years. Think of the wealth of information, and the enormous life, he has always brought to our view of the world, like this final example: When electric lighting was installed in the White House in 1897, President Harrison’s wife and daughter were so frightened that they would not turn it on and the President had it entirely disconnected at night. That would have been ten years before Jacques’ birth, and the talk was about Tosca, written in 1900.

He talked to us about the history of shoes, the mental instability of Carry Nation, the cultural importance of coffee, the implications of fashion — ending with the memorable sentence: The only place clothing has ever been rational is Tahiti.

Jacques published his most recent book in 2000: From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. I can’t quite manage the math, using his then age of 93, so I’ll round up and point out that Jacques has seen 20% of that process himself, but with what eyes! It is a brilliant book, suggesting that decadence — decadence, for example, that so many of us in the struggling classical music field think we see descending upon us — decadence is inevitable at the end of great periods and essential for the creative energy of the next one: our beautiful cultivated peonies becoming compost for the next season. But this is Jacques: informed, objective, and so useful in keeping us balanced as well.

John Silber, the chancellor emeritus of Boston University — and who, by the way, I know to be a hard grader because he gave me a B in my sophomore year at the University of Texas in his course on aesthetics of all things, a bare 80% that still rankles — wrote about this book: No one else could have deployed such erudition over a half-millennium of history with such clarity, grace, narrative drive, and constant and illuminating insight. More than ever it is clear that Jacques Barzun is one of the greatest cultural treasures of our time.

I would say that John Silber has given Jacques 100%, a grade that no one — not even Jacques himself — can contest.

Happy birthday, dear, good, incalculably valuable friend.

Until his recent double retirement, Paul Kellogg was Artistic Director of Glimmerglass Opera and General and Artistic Director of the New York City Opera.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial