by Walter Simmons
THE PIPER OF HAMELIN. An Opera in Three Acts. Music and Libretto by Nicolas Flagello. After a Poem by Robert Browning.
Nicolas Flagello was one of the last composers to develop a distinctive mode of expression based wholly on the principles and techniques of European late-Romanticism. Born in New York City in 1928, Flagello grew up in a highly musical family with deep roots in Old-World traditions. A child prodigy, young Nicolas was composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a youth, he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) Degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation, and remaining there until 1977. During the early 1950s, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, earning the Diploma di Studi Superiori in 1956 at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.
During the years that followed, Flagello composed at a prodigious rate, producing a body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works. In addition, he was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.
As a composer, Flagello held with unswerving conviction to a view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. This unfashionable view, together with his vehement rejection of the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years. However, gradually Flagello’s works have begun to win enthusiastic advocacy.
In 1964, when a group of recordings first introduced Flagello’s music to the broader listening public, The New Records commented, “If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit.” (More than a decade later, Fanfareselected these same recordings for its “Classical Hall of Fame.”) In 1974, his oratorio The Passion of Martin Luther King was premiered with great acclaim by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The work was subsequently recorded, and has since been performed throughout the United States and Canada. And in 1982, his opera The Judgment of St. Francis was produced in Assisi, Italy, where it was praised for its “robust emotionalism … unflinching in its conviction, … a natural flow of expressive melody integrated throughout the musical texture, and an ability to use voices, chorus, and orchestra to their maximum effect.”
During the years since his death, Flagello’s compositions have been performed and recorded at an increasing rate. Today, with much of his music available on compact disc, a whole new generation of listeners is discovering this powerful, deeply moving, and highly communicative body of work.
Background of the Opera
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Manhattan School of Music’s move from its original site in East Harlem to its current location on 122nd Street and Claremont Avenue. In 1969, Cynthia Auerbach, then the assistant director of the Manhattan School’s Preparatory Division and a former student of Nicolas Flagello, wanted to mount a children’s opera to mark the school’s first season in its new quarters. She decided to approach her former teacher, who already had four operas to his credit, with the idea of commissioning an opera for the occasion that could be performed, as well as enjoyed, by children.
Flagello was excited by the prospect, and immediately set about perusing volumes of fairy tales and children’s stories in search of a promising idea. When he discovered Robert Browning’s poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” he knew he had found his subject. Working quickly, he fashioned the libretto himself, re-working the story to eliminate its original vengeful ending, and replacing it with a denouement of redemption in which the Piper is revealed as an almost God-like “Spirit of Music.” Flagello completed the music in January, 1970, just in time for the work to go into rehearsal. The premiere of the opera took place on May 17, 1970, under Cynthia Auerbach’s direction.
The Piper of Hamelin is designed to be appreciated on many levels. The music is direct and tuneful, though structural unity is maintained throughout, by means of subtle and complex developmental techniques. The sophisticated listener will notice a variety of musical “in-jokes,” as references to other well-known compositions slyly peek through the texture. The leading roles require mature, well-trained voices, while the lesser roles may be played by children. Similarly, much of the principal orchestral material is quite advanced technically, though many of the individual instrumental parts are simple enough to be played by young students. The story itself is entertaining at face value, although there are serious messages about the fulfilling of promises, about forgiveness, about taking the work of an artist for granted, and about the transcendental power of music.
The legend of the Pied Piper is reputed to be based on a historical event that took place in the German town of Hamelin in the year 1284, involving the luring away of the town’s children by a piper dressed in brightly colored clothing. The tale was elaborated during the centuries that followed, as various plot elements were added. (For example, the rats and mice did not appear in the story until the 1500s.) During the early 1800s, the Grimm Brothers attempted to combine eleven different narrative sources into one coherent tale. It was the Grimms’ version that Robert Browning used in creating his poetic account in 1849.
Flagello’s Piper of Hamelin begins with a lugubrious orchestral introduction. The first four measures introduce two simple motifs from which all the material of the entire opera is derived. After the introduction, the Narrator sets the scene by reciting the opening verses of the Browning poem. We then witness the miserable townspeople bemoaning their plight: every day at noon Hamelin is besieged by hordes of mice and rats who rampage through the town, eating everything in sight. Every day the children of the town must flee to the hills to protect themselves from this plague. As the clock strikes twelve, we observe the occurrence of the daily invasion, accompanied by a tempestuous orchestral episode. When the rats have disappeared, and the townspeople have assessed the day’s losses, a colorfully-clad stranger appears, playing a flute. When he learns of the townspeople’s plight, he offers to use the power of music to eliminate their problem. At first they are skeptical, but he overcomes their doubt by demonstrating his abilities before their eyes. Persuaded of his power, they agree to pay him a thousand guilders to rid Hamelin of its plague. Act I comes to an end as the townspeople, anticipating their imminent deliverance, raise their voices in praise of the Piper.
Act II begins as the Narrator recites a later verse of the poem, describing how the Piper mesmerizes the rats and lures them to the river to drown. Then, to the accompaniment of another orchestral interlude, we observe as the exodus of the vermin takes place. The exultant townspeople then join in a fugato of gratitude to the Piper and his music, followed by a dance of merriment. But when the Piper himself appears, to collect his fee, the townspeople attempt to renege on their agreement, belittling his music in the process. Enraged, the Piper declares that no more music will be heard in the town—except for one more tune. As he plays a simple melody, all the children gather to follow him as they leave the scene together. The act ends quietly.
Act III begins with an extended orchestral Intermezzo. Beginning solemnly, it expresses the loneliness and despair of the townspeople, now bereft of their children. However, toward the middle of the Intermezzo, a solo clarinet introduces a tender motif that will later emerge as the melody of redemption. When the music ends, the Narrator describes in verse the emptiness that now engulfs the town of Hamelin, and the townspeople voice the lament heard earlier, toward the beginning of Act I. A mother, overcome with grief, sings a poignant lullaby to her missing son. Suddenly the Piper reappears, and the townspeople demand to know what has become of their children. The Piper reminds them of their agreement, insisting that the terms be fulfilled. Finally, the Mayor relents, and pays the Piper the required sum. The Piper assures the townspeople that their children are well. They demand to know the Piper’s true identity, at which point, in the opera’s most fully elaborated aria, he reveals himself as the ubiquitous “Spirit of Music.” Then, as he directs the attention of the townspeople to bells chiming in the distance, the children gradually appear, singing a simple chant (based on the Piper’s aria) in solfege syllables. As the chant is repeated over and over, additional musical elements are added to the contrapuntal fabric, which builds in volume and intensity to an exultant hymn of praise and gratitude, bringing the opera to an ecstatic conclusion.