Edinburgh Festival: Heaven on earth

Saints above: the genesis of a Gertrude Stein opera. By Mark Pappenheim
Click to follow
There's a neat symmetry in the fact that 1996 marks both the centenary of the birth of Virgil Thomson and a half-century since the death of Gertrude Stein. Two gay Americans in Gay Paree between the wars, composer and poet were made for each other - "Gertrude and I got along like a couple of Harvard boys," Thomson used to say of their first meeting in 1926. She wrote texts full of sound and syntax, signifying nothing (or maybe everything); he believed that if composers would only set words for their sound, the sense would take care of itself. Together, they conceived an opera in which the daily life of 16th-century Spanish saints could be taken as a model for modern artists like themselves, whose lives were also "consecrated" to some higher end.

For Stein especially, the words "saint" and "genius" were interchangeable - synonymous terms for those rare beings (herself included) who spend most of their time sitting around, "waiting for it to happen". Of her own saintly status she had no doubt. "I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius," records the narrator of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, "and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken ... The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead." And it was Stein, of course, who wrote those words. To her, all writing was "autobiography", breaking that word down into its three constituent Greek roots, so that the "self", the "life" and the "writing" became one and the same, an unbroken continuum of producer, process and product. "Writing was not really something that she did," Fr John Herbert Gill has observed. "It was something that happened to her, like the visions of a Spanish saint." The "nightly miracle", St Gertrude herself called it.

On these particular nights the vision was of two Spanish saints - St Teresa of Avila and St Ignatius Loyola. "Miss Stein liked these saints because they were Spanish," Thomson recalled. "I liked them for being powerful." Stein delivered her poem in June 1927; Thomson took it away and set every word, stage directions included. (He also introduced two new characters, a Compere and Commere, and split St Teresa into two, so she could sing duets with herself).

It was only after he finished the score, in July 1928, that Thomson asked his friend, the painter Maurice Grosser, to devise a scenario for a possible staging. For, apart from specifying that St Ignatius's aria "Pigeons on the grass alas" should represent a vision of the Holy Ghost and the Act 3 ensemble "Letting pin in letting let" should depict a religious procession, Stein herself had given no indications of plot or action. Naturally. As she herself explained: "A saint, a real saint, never does anything; a martyr does something but a really good saint does nothing, and so I wanted to have four saints who did nothing and I wrote Four Saints in Three Acts and they did nothing and that was everything."

The new opera (typically, even the title is a tease - there are actually four acts and around 30 saints) was premiered in February 1934 in Hartford, Connecticut, by a group wryly styling themselves the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. It was an evening of debuts: for Frederick Ashton (future director of the Royal Ballet), making his US debut as choreographer; for John Houseman, taking his first bow as producer-director (three years before launching the Mercury Theater with Orson Welles); and for eclectic New York artist Florine Stettheimer, risking the ire of the fire marshals by designing her first stage sets from a new industrial material called cellophane. But perhaps the biggest novelty was the use of an all-black cast (a year before Porgy and Bess) in a work not specifically set in a black milieu. Thomson, who had personally recruited his singers in Harlem, later recalled: "I had chosen them purely for beauty of voice, clarity of enunciation and fine carriage. Their surprise gift to the production was their understanding of the work. They got the spirit of it, enjoyed its multiple meanings, even the obscurities, adopted it, spoke in quotations from it."

As word leaked out about the weird new opera poised to open out of town, Four Saints became a hot ticket among New York's society set: the New Haven Railroad had to add on extra parlour cars to meet the demand, while the New York Herald Tribune sent its society columnist, Lucius Beebe, to cover the premiere: "Since the Whisky Rebellion and the Harvard butter riots there has never been anything like it, and until the heavens fall or Miss Stein makes sense there will never be anything like it. By Rolls- Royce, by airplane, by Pullman compartment, and, for all we know, by especially designed Cartier pogo sticks, the smart set enthusiasts of the countryside converged on Hartford."

A fortnight later, the piece transferred to Broadway, where it ran for six weeks - an unprecedented length for an opera. "Of course," Thomson wrote to Stein, "there were some who didn't like the music and some who didn't like the words and even some who didn't like the decors or the choreography but there wasn't anybody who didn't see that the ensemble was a new kind of collaboration and that it was unique and powerful." Stein put it even more succinctly in the brief paragraph she had included about the opera in The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, published the year before: "a completely interesting opera both as to words and music", she called it. Faint praise, perhaps. And yet - "completely interesting" - of how many other operas can one say that?

And it's true. Stein's freely associative brand of automatic writing - which here amounts to a running commentary on the actual process of composition, complete with stray and second thoughts, random jottings, false starts and diary entries - is indeed extraordinary. Like Thomson's music, it is utterly innocent of artifice. Stein writes exactly what's on her mind, nothing more, nothing less.

Thomson rightly remarked that Stein wrote poetry as composers do music. At one level, this emerges in joyous riffs of rhyme and repetition ("Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let..."). At another, it subverts any distinction between sense and syntax, as in St Ignatius's vision of the Last Judgement, where his very words - "around is as sound and around is a sound and around is a sound and around" (sung to martial strains from the pit) - conjure the all-encompassing, awe-inspiring orotundity of the Last Trump.

While Stein's text plays its incessant counting and rhyming games, Thomson's score taps into his Southern Baptist roots for an endlessly tuneful medley of marches, parlour songs, hymns, chants and dances. With something of the anarchic nostalgia of Ives (minus the wrong-note machismo), something of the stripped-down spruceness of Copland (minus the glitzy sheen), more perhaps of the childlike innocence of Barber's Knoxville (minus the faux naif sophistication), it mostly comes across like an American brand of Erik Satie, whose music Thomson so admired, in terms that could best describe his own, for its rejection of "the heroic, the oratorical, everything that is aimed at moving mass audiences" and its espousal of "gentleness, sincerity and directness of statement" instead.

Some 20 years after Four Saints, Stein and Thomson were to collaborate on a second opera, The Mother of Us All, about the American suffragette, Susan B Anthony. It was to be Stein's last work - she died in 1946, the year before its premiere. "I am sorry now that I did not write an opera with her every year," Thomson was to regret in his own later days. "It had not occurred to me that both of us would not always be living." Virgil Thomson died in 1989.

n Tonight to Sat, Edinburgh Playhouse (0131-225 5756)