Conversation with Dr. Peter Lee on the origin of the Term “Opera Warhorse”

The following conversation. discussing the new “” website took place between myself and Peter V. Lee, MD of the University of Southern California.

November, 2005

PVL: “Bill, It’s a great start. . . .  Did you realize that “warhorse” in this sense [an often-performed opera] was first used only in 1947, by Alfred Einstein, in Music in the Romantic Era?

We’ll be at the SFO this weekend for the Sunday afternoon “Norma”, unfortunately no longer first row, center, but there with my daughter & son-in-law, nonetheless. . . Best wishes, Peter”

[Below: Musicologist Alfred Einstein (1880-1952), to whom is attributed the earliest use of the term “warhorse” to describe the most often performed operas in the operatic “standard repertory”; edited image of an historical photograph.]

Wm: Peter, it is my plan to comment on the quality of singers and all of the other factors of an operatic production, both retrospectively and contemporaneously. In fact, I plan to post my comments on the production of San Francisco opera’s “Norma” to which you refer.

PVL: Bill, The quote: from Alfred Einstein,, (W.W. Norton, 1947) p 209. “There is a whole series of operatic transcriptions — all pieces that are great technical war-horses.” According to the OED, the first (and literal) use of the term was in 1653; in 1837 the word first appeared in its figurative sense of an old soldier or veteran. Einstein was one of the dominant musicologists of his generation. Born in Germany in 1880 he left in 1933, when Hitler’s came to power, first to London, then to Italy. In 1939 he came to the US, where he taught at Smith College, from which he retired in 1950. His best known work was on Mozart; his 1945 (Translated by Mendel & Broder, Oxford UP,) is still considered authoritative – at least the musical part (he seems to have been rather misogynistic, as far as Mozart’s women were concerned.) He made many contributions to Mozart scholarship, including updating and improving the standard Kochel numbering system. He was particularly fond of “Idomeneo”, by the way – considered it a work of genius. You mentioned the Bay Area “-stein”, who I assume was Alfred Frankenstein, the revered music critic for the during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Non-San Franciscans remember Frankenstein primarily for his in describing the voice of Eileen Farrell: “Miss Farrell has a voice like some unparalleled phenomenon of nature. She is to singers what Niagara is to waterfalls.” But you knew this already. It is an interesting geographical coincidence that Einstein died in El Cerrito in 1952, and his daughter (I think) donated his library and his papers to the UC Berkeley Music Library.

Thanks for alerting me to your new site, Peter”

Thanks, Peter, for following up on an off-page communication from me, in which I asked for further information about your citation of Alfred Einstein’s reference to operatic “war-horses”. I had momentarily wondered if he was responsible for another quote, but then noticed that his date of death was too early. You are absolutely correct that the quotation I had in mind was one of Alfred Frankenstein’s.

By the way, I did an Internet search of Alfred Einstein and was amazed to find a reference to him among some factoids relating to the 1989 movie “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, a teen-oriented movie that was supposed to take place in the San Dimas Mall (although actually filmed in Phoenix). A close student of that film noticed that reference was made to the scientist Alfred Einstein, and wondered if there was a hidden meaning in the substitution of the name of a musicologist for the great theoretical physicist. I will go with a slip of the tongue, or careless writing, unless additional furtive clues in the Excellent Adventure are disclosed.