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In 1938 British composer Edmund Rubbra (1901–1986) made an orchestral version of the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24 by Johannes Brahms (published 1862). Rubbra’s choice was not popular among critics, in the United Kingdom at any rate, and his orchestration was even condemned as a ‘false move’ on his part. The work proved to be more popular in North America, particularly after performances by Arturo Toscanini, and later by Eugene Ormandy. In 1984 Rubbra’s score became the accompaniment for the Jerome Robbins/Twyla Tharp ballet, and thus reached a much wider audience (although their title suppressed Rubbra’s role).

We may observe (and hear) in the two later works the ‘backward glance’ of both Brahms and Rubbra. Brahms, in this major contribution to serious variation sets of the Romantic period, explicitly ‘made it old’ by selecting a ‘trumpet tune’ from an obscure keyboard suite of ca. 1717. After the Theme, Brahms briefly abandons Handel, for with Variation 1 we enter the Klangwelt of Brahms. Nonetheless, references to old forms, patterns, and genres appear subsequently in the work, leading to the idea of the ‘exotic’ and the ‘antiquarian’ as possible (newly-identified) musical ‘topics’.

I trace Rubbra’s backward glance not so much towards Brahms, as back to Handel through and in some respects circumventing Brahms. Rubbra’s genius was not only to look forward – to give the work to a twentieth-century orchestra and to orchestrate out implicit instrumental sonorities in the variations, a few of which actually postdate Brahms – but also to ‘make it old’ by realizing the Baroque grandeur of the Theme, as well as the genre references (the ‘topics’) among the variations. In sum, the retro elements in Brahms are ‘re-retrofied’ by Rubbra in this remarkable and enjoyable adaptation of an important work.

In: 'Make It Old': Retro Forms and Styles in Literature and Music
Volume Editor:
The twelve essays presented in this volume are drawn from the Fifth International Conference on Word and Music Studies held at Santa Barbara, CA, in 2005. The conference was organized and sponsored by The International Association for Word and Music Studies (WMA) and in its central section explored the theme of “Word/Music Adaptation”. In these wide-ranging papers, a great variety of cases of intermedial transposition between music, literature, drama and film are examined. The music of Berlioz, Biber, Chopin, Carlisle Floyd, Robert Franz, Bernard Herrmann, Liszt, Richard Strauss, Verdi, and pop singer Kate Bush confronts and commingles with the writings of Emily Brontë, Goethe, Nancy Huston, George Sand, and Shakespeare in these cutting-edge adaptation studies. In addition, four films are discussed: Wuthering Heights, Fedora, Otello, and The Notebook. The articles collected will be of interest not only to music and literary scholars, but also to those engaged in the study of adaptation theory, semiotics, literary criticism, narrative theory, art history, feminism or postmodernism.
In: Essays on Word/Music Adaptation and on Surveying the Field
In: Essays on Word/Music Adaptation and on Surveying the Field


“Say, who the heck is Shanghai Lil?” asks one platinum-haired lady of the night in Warner Brothers’s 1933 musical film, Footlight Parade. Well may she, and also we, ask that question then and today. Even when Lil appears, it is not at all clear just who she is. She is an elusive yet ever-present character, almost a narrative trope, one that crystallizes the essence of the attraction and repulsion of treaty-port era Shanghai (1843–1943) and beyond to the present day. This can be seen from such films as Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932, where the named character first appears) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941), and perhaps all the way to Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007). Lil is a shape-shifter – ambiguities of ethnicity, persona, and even gender pursue her – and an icon of recontextualization made for intertextual studies. She always appears in a dramatic, and usually musical frame, and here I look at and consider three of her numerous incarnations which involve the narrative intersections of words, music, and the moving image: Dao Hua in Reinhold Glière’s socialist-realistic ballet, Kransnii mak (The Red Poppy, 1927 ), especially in the abridged version filmed for Czechoslovak television in 1955; Lil in Footlight Parade; and her completely rectified persona, Fang Haizhen, in the 1964/1973 Chinese ‘revolutionary Peking opera’, On the Docks (Haigang).

In: Music, Narrative and the Moving Image


Excluded from my 2002 edition of German-American composer Otto Dresel’s Collected Vocal Music is a one-page fragment of a song, written in evident haste, with a text beginning “Loose the sail, rest the oar”. Unfinished, partially revised, possibly missing an additional page, it is not the norm in critical editions to include editorial completions. The text also was obscure, not to be found at the time through an internet search. As I began in 2016 to prepare my collection of Dresel’s manuscripts for transfer to Houghton Library, Harvard University, I had another look and found myself thinking more about what was complete and what was incomplete. The text, I discovered, comes from Charles Kingsley’s 1853 novel, Hypatia. What was conservative Dresel (1826–1890) doing reading such a book, a mélange of fictionalized history, Christian apologetics, and anti-Catholic/anti-Semitic sentiments, all topped with a Doppel-schlag of sadism and voyeurism? Why did he choose to set this fragmentary song, sung in the novel by the courtesan Pelagia, to music in the (probably) 1880s? Was he aware of the afflatus for Hypatia-related artworks that was emerging at just this time? This was not a song for proper Bostonians, and perhaps that is why he never finished it. Having overcome my misgivings and completed the (in)complete song, I explore the corridors down which research can lead, one where we encounter a compelling cast of characters; some as Kingsley called them, ‘new foes with an old face’, including such unlikely antagonists as Cardinal (and now Saint) John Henry Newman.

In: Arts of Incompletion