Christophe Colomb, Op. 102 (in two volumes with German and French Libretto)
Darius Milhaud – Christophe Colomb, Op. 102
(b. Marseille, 4. September 1892 – d. Geneva, 22. June 1974)
At different points in the history of the medium, certain operatic subjects seem to exert a powerful attraction to composers. The significantly more famous Der fliegende Holländer of Richard Wagner was roughly contemporaneous with Le vaisseau fantôme of Pierre-Louis Dietsch; the completion of the Wozzeck of Alban Berg precedes that of Manfred Gurlitt’s Wozzeck by mere weeks. In recent years, Walter Benjamin’s philosophical essay ‘On the Concept of History’ has been given dramatic treatment (albeit in a rather more discursive and abstract manner) by Brian Ferneyhough, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, and Vinko Globokar. Reductively speaking, the predilection for certain subjects by contemporary musicians, despite being separated by geography, practice, and style, may be said to function as a sort of cultural barometer, speaking towards the hopes, fears, and preoccupations of artists in their historically contingent milieu.
It is striking, then, that the interwar decades saw three major composers write works based on the life and times of Christopher Columbus. The subject had occasionally been used before: Félicien David composed a Christophe Colomb in 1847, and Alberto Franchetti wrote his Cristoforo Colombo in 1892 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. The present work, Milhaud’s Christophe Colomb, is the earliest of these three interwar adapations; it was followed by Werner Egk’s Columbus (subtitled ‘Bericht und Bildnis’, but in effect a radio opera) in 1932 and Arthur Honegger’s Christophe Colomb (a ‘jeu radiophonique’) in 1940. These three works all present the Columbus-narrative with almost Brechtian detachment, with narrators and choruses frequently interrupting the diegesis to address the audience directly and comment on the action. Accordingly, Columbus’s romantic relationship with Queen Isabella (with its requisite liebestod) appears as an almost nostalgic convention, somewhat out of place in the detached proceedings. Furthermore, all of these adaptations reveal a distrust of the heroic, a fatalistic but morally ambiguous presentation of discovery and conquest, and, perhaps most obviously indicative of the zeitgeist, a moral imperative for spiritual rather than material ends and, concomitantly, a censorious attitude towards vanity and decadence: Columbus and his discovery are here redeemed (if at all) through faith and not gold. Pursuant to this last point, the nascent Spanish empire of Columbus’s time can be read as an analogue to pre-depression Europe. While evident in various degrees in all three settings (and Milhaud had begun composing his opera before the stock market crash), this subtext (and its contemporary hindsight) is most readily apparent in Egk’s adaptation, which ends with a full-choral admonition to sound financial governance…
by Max Erwin, 2017
Read full preface > HERE