Harkening Back To 'Four Saints' During The Harlem Renaissance

Aug 6, 2018

The next time you see a magpie in the sky, I hope you'll remember Four Saints in Three Acts.

That there are a prologue and four acts, and 18 saints — maybe 19, depending on how you count — needn't detain us.

Four Saints in Three Acts is an opera by Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) to a libretto by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946).

What we have here is a collaboration between an aesthete Southern Baptist out of Kansas City and an American writer living in Paris whose works people talked about and no one understood.

In 2016, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, performed Four Saints in Three Acts, producing a terrific recording. The text and music are addictive, as I'm sure Thomson intended them to be. (Find the recording on Amazon and ArkivMusic.)

Staging this opera is on my bucket list. The 1934 premiere in Hartford, Connecticut, embraced America's first Picasso retrospective at the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Harlem Renaissance, an all-black cast, John Houseman and Frederick Ashton.

In Columbus, several arts organizations have partnered for a centennial celebration of the Harlem Renaissance, including the Columbus Museum of Art. We have the excellent Ohio Song Project. We have plenty of fine musicians and several colleges where at least someone will be at home with Stein's words.

Columbus is made for Saints.

Stein had an affection for Spain and for saints.

Thomson's musical life began as the organist in the grand Baptist churches of his youth. He knew his way around a hymnbook. He was perfectly situated to set any language with absolute musical clarity — even Stein's language.

Stein and Thomson had met in Paris in the 1920s. The young composer found himself at one of the regular Saturday night salons Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas held at their atelier near the Luxembourg Gardens.

The walls — crammed floor-to-ceiling with Picassos, Braques, Cezannes and, above all, Pablo's "Portrait of Gertrude Stein" — in no way upstaged Stein's forceful personality. Toklas was calm but could be ruthless.

Composer Virgil Thomson, poet Gertrude Stein and the score for 'Four Saints in Three Acts'
Credit Virgil Thomson Foundation Ltd.

It must have been intimidating. But I doubt Thomson was intimidated. Instead, a friendship bloomed between Stein and Thomson — Toklas remained skeptical.

Thomson set a few of Stein's writings to music. Susie Asado and Preciosilla became charming art songs. Stein, who professed to dislike music, was delighted.

The two sought a subject for a new opera. Finally, Stein sat down and wrote a libretto about St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola and a huge bevy of saints. The setting was Spain.

Scene from 'Four Saints in Three Acts,' in Hartford, Connecticut, 1934
Credit White Studio / The New York Public Library Digital Collections

That St. Teresa and St. Ignatius lived centuries apart wasn't a problem. During the course of the opera, St. Teresa has herself photographed. In fact, there are two St. Teresa's "so she can sing duets with herself."

And what about that magpie? You’ve probably heard this before:

Pigeons on the grass alas …

If a magpie in the sky on the sky cannot cry if the pigeon on the grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.

Don't think that can be sung?

The opera was rehearsed in Harlem. Thomson, after several nights of partying in the clubs along Lenox Avenue, decided to cast Four Saints with African-American singers, "for the excellence of their diction."

This was a notable move in 1933. The composer was lucky to have the help of choral conductor Eva Jessye (whom he did not like). Jessye recruited and trained the singers.

Scene from 'Four Saints in Three Acts' at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, 1934
Credit White Studio / The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Stein's text held no terrors for her singers. Thomson's chorales, hymns, marches and waltzes were a delight.

The opera in preparation attracted writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, a friend of Stein's who became the foremost chronicler of the arts above 125th Street.

The problem of staging an opera that had no real plot was given to John Houseman. He was flummoxed and acted more as producer and rehearsal scheduler.

It was ballet star Frederick Ashton who devised the pageants and processions that kept our Spanish saints on stage.

Joseph Alsop covered the rehearsals for the New York Herald Tribune:

"Arias and recitatives like no hymns St. Philip's Protestant Episcopal Sunday School children ever sang are echoing through the old church building. Beneath decorated texts in the dark basement, Four Saints in Three Acts is slowly taking shape and it begins to look as if the mysterious woman so long laughed at would at last be justified to the world — and by Harlem ..."

Geraldine Sartain, of the New York World-Telegram, celebrated the production, with "its pink cellophane clouds, its all-Negro cast, and its imported famous English choreographer."

One chorale was especially entrancing: "Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily ..."

"It was beautiful," Sartain wrote, "soft, lovely, haunting music, with the sound of words forming pictures in your mind. Further, you heard each word, something unheard of in the usual opera."

Group portrait of the cast of 'Four Saints in Three Acts,' 1934
Credit The New York Public Library Digital Collections

To recap: We have an English-language opera with a text that seemed to make no sense, set with absolute clarity to music any good, church-going Baptist would appreciate. The cast was African-American. The staging was by a British ballet star. The rehearsal — indeed, the aesthetic came out of Harlem during the Great Depression.

And the sets? Palm trees, curtains and robes in red, gold, pink and green, made of cellophane — the work of Florine Stettheimer. She was one of three wealthy sisters who lived with their mother in the Alwyn Court, then and now one of Manhattan's grandest apartment buildings.

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Connecticut hosted the premiere in February 1934.

The country's first all-Picasso exhibition was inaugurating the Atheneum's new wing. The wing's theater needed a similarly world-shaking event. Four Saints was it.

The railroad sent extra cars up from Manhattan. Society chronicler Lucius Beebe sniffed of the opening-night audience:

"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 Wednesday evening …"

The theater seated 299. Shortly before 9 p.m. on Feb. 7, 1934, conductor Alexander Smallens cued the drumroll. The curtain rose on Stettheimer's pink-and-green cellophane sets.

The cast of Spanish saints —with two St. Teresas — stepped forward and sang.

"To know, to know to love her so / Four saints prepare for saints / It makes it well fish ..."

Two hours later, the cheers nearly outran the performance.

Van Vechten cabled Stein in Paris: "Dear Gertrude: Four Saints, in our vivid theatrical parlance, is a knockout and a wow."

Thomson wrote about Four Saints:

"Do not try to understand the words of this opera literally nor seek in the music of it undue reference to modern Spain. If, through the poet's liberties with logic and the composer's constant use of the plainest musical language, something is evoked of the inner gayety and the strength of lives consecrated to a non-material end, the authors will consider their labors rewarded."

Twelve years later, Stein and Thomson collaborated on another opera — a story of Susan B. Anthony called The Mother of Us All. It was Stein's last work. She died before the opera was performed.

"I am sorry now I did not write an opera with her every year," Thomson later said. "It had not occurred to me that both of us would not always be living."