Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Which first - music or words? (thoughts stemming from Rodgers & Hammerstein)

In Ethan Mordden's book, Rodgers and Hammerstein, I just read the phrase, '...all the lovely and characterful music in the world can do nothing till it has something honest to work with.' He's praising Hammerstein's words of course (books and lyrics for Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I). But I kind of agree with it, because I think he's lit on one of the most powerful tools of a librettist - context. The context in which the music is played can affect its impact.

In our symphonic cantata Journey to Horseshoe Bend I had the lines:

But God cannot be known
Nor made to answer men.
No use in us demanding
The meaning of our pain.

At one stage this was in the words of the pastor, Carl. It's his opinion. It was later placed in the mouths of the chorus. There it suddenly became editorial, as befitted what I thought of as part of the core meaning of the work.

This may not exactly be context. But changing location or time of night or day can alter the effect of a scene as effectively as this.

I have two much-treasured instances of music that hooked me at least as much because of the context in which I heard them.

In Alice Springs at Easter in 1981, I happened to pick up on one of the Melbourne radio stations 2,258 kms (1,403 miles) away that year's Bayreuth Festival production of Wagner's Parsifal. I wasn't listening to it on the best of equipment but it sure was a moving experience in my little flat in the backyard in Willshire Street. I don't know if I would have found it more moving if I'd actually been sitting in the Festpielhaus in Germany.

Also, when I was a kid, Radio 3DB in Melbourne used to broadcast a concert at 11 o'clock Sunday nights. I was supposed to be asleep in bed, but I would sneak a small transistor under the blankets and tune in, with the volume down low. One night I forgot to put the radio on until about 11.50. When I located the station I was knocked out; it was spectacular - like Catherine Wheels going off in my head, plumes of flame spinning from revolving wheels. It was the climax to Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy.

Alexander Scriabin who thought he would write a piece that would end the world, but died instead from an insect bite

I've loved the piece ever since. It may not be a flawless masterpiece (although close), it may not have enough intellectual content for the real aficionados, and I was listening to it on a crappy tranny. But it's one of the best musical experiences of my life. And I think a great deal of the overwhelming experience lay in the fact that I heard this gigantic outpouring in an unexpected context, listening 'illegally' in the cocoon of my bed.

I sometimes wonder if contemporary opera suffers from the fact that we've gotten used to thinking that the effect of the piece comes down almost solely to the music, and not the music and action and words working in tandem to be more than the sum of their parts. The music provides the emotional content perhaps - it's the verb - but it doesn't guarantee the whole effect.

And in fact, I question whether words cannot sometimes match music's emotional impact. Let me move on to another tangent. Could any music match the majesty of Abraham Lincoln's words to Mrs Bixby (which I quote as well I can from memory to prove how they ring):

'Dear Madam

I have been a paper in the files of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts to the effect that you are the mother of five sons who have died on the glorious field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless are any words of mine that could seek to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming, but I cannot refrain from tendering to you the humble thanks of the republic they died to save,' etc...

Lincoln, whose prose could be more majestic than music. Alexander Gardner's 1863 portrait
Who gets close to Lincoln? Bach? but not in an exact setting of these words.

Nah, opera is meant to be an ensemble effort, truly a gesamtkunstwerk. Musical theater is.

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