ROSNER: The Chronicle of Nine -- The Tragedy of Queen Jane (1984).
Megan Pachecano (soprano, Lady Jane Grey); James Demler (baritone, Earl of Arundel); David Salbery Fry (bass, Earl of Pembroke); Aaron Engelbreth (baritone, John Dudley); Krista River (mezzo, Lady Dudley); Eric Carey (tenor, Guildford Dudley); William Hite (tenor, Henry Grey); Rebecca Krouner (contralto, Frances Grey); Stephanie Kacoyanis (contralto, Lady Mary); Gene Stenger (tenor, Minstrel); Odyssey Opera; Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose.
BMOP/sound 1081 (2 disks) TT: 81:36 + 49:42.


Monumental, unfortunately. American composer Arnold Rosner's career suffered from mainly two things. First, his idiom was out of joint with the prevailing post-Webernian serialism and avant-gardism of the time. Second (and related to the first), he had few connections to those musical circles that would have led to big commissions and performances. Against this, however, he also had a burning conviction -- largely clear-eyed -- that he was a great composer. I agree with him. At his considerable best, which was often, he turned out masterpieces -- chamber, orchestral, choral, vocal -- and the best thing about them is that, despite their considerable compositional complexity, they speak directly to listeners. I often wonder what the premiere audience at Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra felt. That score became an instant classic. Those feelings stirred in me when I heard the majority of Rosner's recorded output for the first time. He has almost everything I want. The music takes big, epic strides. The ideas and their development speak directly. The "narrative" proceeds clearly. The idiom, though eclectic, in toto belongs to Rosner alone, as Mahler assimilated Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, the German Lied tradition, and folk song to forge something instantly recognizable and unique. Rosner takes big aesthetic risks.
At the same time, I recognize Rosner's limitations. He gravitated toward the grand, even the grandiose. One meets with few "light" pieces, although they sparkle with wit and good humor. He could write them, but his artistic sensibility resonated more with rarified emotional heights. He began an opera on Bergman's The Seventh Seal, writing a good deal of music before Bergman denied him permission to use the script.
In the wake of Bergman's shutdown, Rosner cast about for another subject, suitable for the grand opera he wanted to write. He found one in a modern verse drama by Florence Stevenson on the nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey, which (with Stevenson's permission) Rosner adapted to a libretto. The story concerns the bloody Tudor politics following the death of the boy-king Edward VI, Henry VIII's heir. Jane Grey, a teen herself, is pressured into a marriage with the powerful Dudley family. That faction proclaims her Edward's lawful successor. Unfortunately, they have little popular support and Jane is deposed in favor of Mary Tudor (known as "Bloody Mary" for her persecution of Protestants; she was, of course, Catholic). It wasn't a matter of religion for most of the English, but the fact that they regarded Mary as next in the rightful line of succession. Mary imprisoned Jane and her husband and executed them both, along with the other major players of the Dudley faction. It took Rosner four years to finish this, his longest score.

Most composers fall into either the lyric or the dramatic category. The lyric composer directly expresses emotions. The dramatic composer creates characters and emotions rise from conflicting points of view. It is the difference between a Keats sonnet and a Chekhov play. Mozart could do both. The Symphony No. 40, while turbulent, is lyrical. The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni -- although both contain beautiful arias -- not only depict character but provide a variety of pace that moves the action along. Rosner, despite the "drama" in his instrumental music, remains a lyric composer, not a dramatic one. His musical methods don't really suit the theater.

Nor does Lady Jane make a strong heroine. Historically and dramatically, she has little agency, essentially a cat's-paw for the bigger players. That's not necessarily a bad thing, if you can breath life into the intrigue. This Rosner fails to do. Each scene moves at roughly the same slow, steady pace. The musical variety comes from instrumental interludes and preludes. Furthermore, each character sounds like every other. Dramatically, the opera fizzles out. This doesn't mean it lacks effective moments, like Jane's prayer (Act I, scene ii), the love duet in the Tower between Jane and her husband (Act III, scene ii), the powerful final scene of Jane's execution, or any of the instrumental pieces, but these again are essentially lyric, not dramatic. It's a bit like watching a pageant, rather than a play.

I should add that Rosner succeeded in his short opera, Bontsche Schweig (based on a short story by I. L. Peretz, never commercially recorded), mainly because it's brief and because the nature of the original story is more ritual than drama. Rosner never heard this score as a fully staged production. He did extract bits as suite and reworked much of the music into his Seventh Symphony, and both appeared on CD. Kudos to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera under the direction of Gil Rose for championing a score which, even now, has very little chance of a path in the "normal" opera world. The notes, by Walter Simmons and Carlton Cooman, and the sonics are first-rate. Although I think it a weak opera, it still contains marvelous music. Rosner can still get to you.

S.G.S. (April 2022)