Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Victory of the Long Tail

Last September, I wrote about my attempts to find an obscure CD title online. In my article I mentioned how there were only a few copies being advertised on Amazon.com, for exorbitant prices; and I mentioned how the label under which the title was produced and distributed (Koch-Schwann) had ultimately been bought out by Universal and retired, and that the title was completely out of print and unavailable anywhere else.

Well, I want to report that this tale has a happy ending. Here's what happened.

First, Arby had left a comment with a link to another retail site that was advertising it. I forwarded that info on to my Dad, who tried it out. No luck; they were advertising it, but when they received Dad's order, they suddenly discovered that it was out of stock, out of print and otherwise unavailable. No duh, as we used to say when we were younger and smarter. I figured that most other sites would be like that. It is a pretty obscure title, after all; there aren't too many people out there--even Strauss afficionados--who've even heard of the thing.

Rock bottom supply, rock bottom demand.

But I kept it in mind, and periodically I would tune back in to Amazon to see if anything had changed.

Lo and behold, a couple of days ago something had changed. There were now two used copies for sale from third-party sellers, with the prices listed at $31.00 and $99.00. I figured the lower price was reasonable. So I whipped out the plastic...

(...which thankfully still works; apparently my issuer hasn't gone under yet...)

...and placed the order.

The third-party seller got it out by first-class mail the next day, and it showed up today.

Now, I actually happened to be on the phone with my Dad this evening on a completely unrelated topic when my wife walked up to me and quietly dropped the package into my hands. So I got to tell him that we had a little post-Christmas present for him that he would find interesting.

And then, after the call, I popped in the CD and played it--just to make sure the disc was in good condition, mind you. Besides, I figured the disk was already used--playing it a few times before giving it to Dad wouldn't reduce the value of his gift any further, after all. (Not to mention the fact that Dad told us to.)


So how's the music?

Well, it's not just music--it's an entire Singspiel. Now, Strauss didn't finish the thing before his death, so other composers had to flesh it out before it could be performed--but apparently, they fleshed it out entirely with leitmotifs that Strauss had already finished composing for the piece; they didn't make up the rest of it out of whole cloth. Wherever Strauss had left notes on what was supposed to go where, that was incorporated.

The work, Des Esels Schatten (The Donkey's Shadow), was written as a musical play, a Singspiel. It's ultimately based on Aesop's Fable by the same name, in which a client who hired a donkey got in an argument with the donkey's owner over whether the fee also includes use of the donkey's shadow (so he can take a brief rest in the shade, while trying to cross a hot desert). In the original version, the men start arguing so violently that the donkey gets spooked and runs off.

But in Strauss's version, the plot gets a whole lot longer and more convoluted, and becomes a wickedly funny satire on lawyers, on religions, and on the masses' hunger for entertainment (and propensity to get into trouble when they're bored). In this version of the story the arguing men turn around and head back to their hometown where they go to court. And then the lawyers start egging them on. And the court impounds the donkey. And then the lawyers and the litigants start looking for powerful allies in the town, including the local demagogue and priests from two rival temples. (The scene where they have to use a nubile young girl to entice the extremely old, decrepit priest to lending his support, by playing on his senile lechery, is a bit on the edgy side, but--as I said before--wickedly funny. She winds up singing a sensuous, seductive song to him... and the music promptly puts him to sleep.) It all culminates with the town divided into two bloodthirsty rival factions, the "donkeys" and the "shadows", who are convinced that this is no longer about a one-drachma dispute, but that their entire society is threatened. But when they finally bring out the "evidence", it is discovered that in the several weeks that the dispute has been festering, no one remembered to feed the donkey, who has now died of starvation.

That's the play. It is presented on the CD with the musical numbers of the Singspiel (sung in German) interspersed with a very droll narration (in English) of the story by Peter Ustinov, delivered in a very dry, understated, almost deadpan, British style. It's pretty close to a perfect delivery.


Through the whole thing, I kept thinking about what a good social commentary the story is--it somehow seems entirely timely today. He skewers the lawyers who keep egging on disputes for their own benefit; he skewers the "people", who've gotten bored with their peaceful existence, and so spend their time and effort figuring out ways to get in fights with each other; he skewers politicians, he skewers religious infighting...

And through it all, I was thinking, this guy's got it straight. We do have a tendency to take small inconveniences, and minor disputes, and convince ourselves that the republic will end if we don't triumph over our opponents. Sometimes it seems to us Americans (and all Westerners, to put it more generally) that winning a political fight is so important that we're willing to inflict all kinds of collateral damage to our civil society in the aim of political victory; and we're willing to see our opponents as monsters, instead of as fellow citizens.

Des Esels Schatten is a good musical work, and a good social satire. I have no idea if this particular title will ever go into print again, or if and when other revivals will be done of the work, but if it ever happens, I'd highly recommend that any of my readers who are into late Romantic German opera take a look at it. (If there are any. Bueller...? Bueller...?)

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