August 7, 2011

J. K. Rowling, Verdi and "Trovatore"'s musical DNA

I'm now going to explain what's so great about the great operas: 

They're like the Harry Potter books.

(Hmmm... we're a little short on words for a quality blog post here.  I shall explain further.)

Ask any of the obssessed devotees of the Potter series (all thirty-seven trillion of them) why they love it so much and they will answer as one.  Because the stories are well-plotted?  Nope.  Because Harry is so cute?  Because we all identify with the characters?  Because we all want good to triumph over evil?  Because Quidditch is a super-fun game?  No, no, no and no.

As any good Muggle will tell you, it's because J. K. Rowling's achievement in Harry Potter is this: she has created a virtual reality.  Out of pure imagination she constructed a world so detailed, so self-sufficient and logical, so completely believable in its presentation of a complex society, that this world becomes irresistably fascinating.

I have always maintained that Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Mozart did the exact same thing; they created virtual reality in musical terms.  When a composer (and it's he who deserves the credit, not the librettist) manages to create musical virtual reality, he has given us the gift of a world we want to visit time and time again.  The intrigue of a self-sufficient universe to explore is far more long-lived than the appeal of an aria.  Melodies can pall with over-familiarity, whereas characters which exist in musical virtual reality become friends: friends that seem as real as anyone; friends with whom we wish to remain in touch through the years.

But what is "musical virtual reality"?

You're probably expecting me to launch into a lengthy treatise on Wagner and his leitmotifs at this point.  And there's little doubt that our favorite blowhard genius took the virtual-reality football and ran with it in his Ring tetrology, where even the subtexts have subtexts.  But I'm not going there; I'm turning to an unlikely source of musical realism:  Verdi's Il Trovatore.

Of all of Verdian operas in the standard repertoire, Trovatore is considered to have the weakest libretto.  "Weakest"?  Try "laughably imbecilic".  I have grave doubts that Salvatore Cammarano (the librettist) could have written a coherent synopsis of this thing without getting confused himself.  We put up with this pompous nonsense because Verdi's white-hot music somehow manages to convince us we're observing a facsimile of genuine human nature in Manrico and his cohorts. 

And herein lies a really cool example of musical virtual reality.

The plot, you'll recall, centers around Manrico and the Count di Luna, a couple of men who are unaware that they are brothers separated at birth (yes: very cheesy).  Naturally, they grow up to be sworn enemies and rivals for the love of the same woman (more cheese).  Each in turn is assigned a romantic aria in which to obsess about their mutual crush, one Leonora:  Il balen del suo sorriso  for the Count and Ah, sì ben mio for Manrico.

At some point it occured to me that if my theory about virtual reality in opera is correct, then there should be some musical evidence that the two characters are related; our sole source of knowledge shouldn't be simply the libretto.  Something in the score should confirm their kinship.

And I found it:  musical DNA.  This will blow your mind. 

At first the arias seem to have little in common, other than being about Leonora.  Il balen is a glowing ballad in common time; the key is a mellow B flat major; the text is an ode to the light of her smile.  Ah, sì ben mio, on the other hand, is darker in tone owing to the brooding key of F minor and a restless 3/4 meter.  The words are a grim prophecy of Manrico's actual fate; his thoughts turning to Leonora as he dies at the hands of the enemy. 

But look more closely, and an amazing picture unfolds:  these arias are closely linked in melodic structure and materials.  Here is the opening phrase of di Luna's vocal line:

The phrase begins on the fifth step of the B flat scale, descends to the third, then leaps up to the tonic B flat by way of the fifth before settling back down where it began.  The basic contour is 5 to 3 to 5 to 1 to 5.

Now compare with the opening of Manrico's solo:

While the rhythms are different and we're in a different key, the contour is the same.  Once again, the vocal line begins on the dominant, moves down a third, skips up by consecutive thirds and back down again: 5-3-5-1-5.  But similarities do not end with the opening notes.  At measure 18 of Il balen, the orchestra breaks into a lilting waltz pattern as di Luna begins a new, rhapsodic subject on the words "Ah, l'amor, l'amor ond'ardo", reaching a climax with this chromatically descending phrase at bar 20:

The sensuous slide down by half-steps begins on the dominant.  Now, leap to a line occuring at bar 24 of Manrico's aria soon after the modulation to D flat major.

Look familiar?  It should; it's the same musical idea, sliding down chromatically from the dominant.  And there you have it; two brothers who are genetically programmed to express romantic feelings in the same style, with the same phrase structure.  Musical DNA proven.

I forgive you if you're skeptical.  Perhaps by now you're thinking, "Glenn, Glenn, Glenn...  even if Verdi intended these similarities to mean what you say they mean, who cares?  When Trovatore had its world premiere performance, that opening-night audience hardly had the opportunity to study the score with a magnifying glass.  What are the odds that any significant percentage of them - heck, even one of them - noticed those similarities and came to these conclusions?  Doubtful, dude... very doubtful."

But that's how it is with virtual reality, just as it is in what we call the "real world", which is full of amazing little miracles most people never notice.  Think of a nice grassy lawn, a lawn you might walk across every day.  Ever think about what you might find under your feet?  Ants, spiders, caterpillers - a galaxy of life forms, burrowing and hunting and fighting and feeding and reproducing...  ewww!  Creepy, huh?  And you might never get down on your knees to look for them.

But that doesn't mean they aren't there!

So it is with operatic masterpieces.  I myself have sung three different roles in three different productions of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and I've accompanied its arias and studied recordings of it for decades now.

I'm still finding that, upon re-acquaintance, new details of virtual reality continue to reveal themselves to me. 

I don't expect this phenomenon to run dry anytime before my own reality (read "life") comes to an end.

And that, muggles, is what's so great about the great operas.


  1. We're currently blasting Shostakovich to drown out the sound of my neighbor praying (I wish I was kidding; my real life is weirder than some operas) so I didn't sing through the musical lines to see what you meant, but intellectually I understand it and YAY this is exactly the kind of deep awesomeness I like to know about. No wonder Anna linked me to you!!

    1. Didn't see your comment until just now, Sonya - thanks! I appreciate it1
      --Glenn Winters