October 2, 2011

Aida in Kansas. Or the West Side. Or Tennessee.

When asked why he chose the title "Songs Without Words" for his piano pieces, Felix Mendelssohn replied, "What music expresses is not too vague for words, but rather too precise."  He had a point, but even so, there are words and situations which consistently seem to inspire a certain type of melodic line in composers of music drama.



One of those situations would be that of an individual, often but not necessarily at the point of death, who yearns for another world; another life; another plane of being.

The archetype for this scenario was established by Charles Dickens in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, when unlikely hero Sydney Carton famously speaks of that "far, far better place I go than I have ever been" on his way to the guillotine.  Sydney has had a chance to express himself operatically thanks to an obscure opera by Arthur Benjamin briefly heard in the 1950's; I have no idea what the music sounds like.  

But I can make an educated guess.

A dozen years after Dickens' novel, Verdi set the musical archetype for this "far, far better place" schtick in the final scene of his Aida, in which Radames and his Ethiopian soul mate die together in a subterranean tomb.  Verdi had lost patience with the work of Ghislanzoni, his glorified-stenographer of a librettist, and ended up using his own poetry for the duet "O terra addio".  The words, entirely serviceable for his dramatic purposes, clearly convey the lovers' acceptance that earth has no longer has a place for them and their expectation that death will be the portal to a new and better existence.  And the vocal line is a true inspiration.  Mirroring the characters' yearning for heaven, the melody stretches upward a major seventh, then with a final grasping lunge completes the octave as if struggling to reach the new life to come:

With admirable restraint, music of genuine spirituality contributes to an unusually compelling finale, free of bombast and melodrama.  An especially picturesque touch is the repetition of the theme in the strings after Radames and Aida can no longer sing; rising to the upper reaches of the violins, the theme becomes thinner and thinner in timbre like the last wisps of oxygen dissipating in the darkness.  One "hears" the air disappear...

Now, if Verdi had come up with these Italian words: C'รจ un posto per noi, he would have duplicated Stephen Sondheim's "There's a place for us" in West Side Story.  Tony and Maria are a pair of lovers just as devoted and doomed as Verdi's Egyptians, and Bernstein's musical setting has the same gesture of a rising seventh, depicting the sense of the lyrics "Hold my hand and we're almost there":

Another prominent American composer for the stage, Carlisle Floyd, was faced with a character who may not be facing imminent death, but will certainly be doomed to an existence of unfulfilled promises, trapped on a Tennessee mountainside.  The "better place" for which Susannah pines in the opera bearing her name may feature city streets and romance rather than clouds and harps, but her desire to leave the mountain is clearly signaled by the first phrase of her famous solo:
Does the fact that her ascending major seventh fails to complete the octave mean that, unlike Radames and Aida, she will never achieve her dreams of a better life in a better place?  That's doubtless being a bit too literal, but in any event the relationship to Verdi's theme is unmistakable.  Is it deliberate?  Well, though I did get to meet and interview Mr. Floyd, as charming a Southern gentleman as you'd ever want to encounter, I didn't think to ask him that.  Susannah's plight, by the way, is very similar to that of Ariel, the underwater heroine of the Disney film The Little Mermaid.  However, composer Alan Menken seems not to have gotten the memo regarding upward-leaping sevenths and octaves; her song "Part of your world", otherwise a clone of "Ain't it a pretty night", avoids the device.  In fact, the dominance of descending motion in the vocal line could (if you want to over-think it, and I do,) foreshadow her eventual fate of returning to the sea as bubbles of foam.

And then there's Dorothy.  Auntie Em doesn't "get" her, and the mean old lady hates her dog; Kansas, to put it bluntly, stinks.  Do we know where her "better place" is?  You betcha we do.  Is it Verdian in contour?  Come on - you know the answer to that one, right?

If there's an Olympic event in the category of "better-place song writing", Harold Arlen takes home the gold: Dorothy, with a full head of musical steam, clears the octave on her first try.  Quite the athlete!

But remember, children: as beloved and iconic as the music of Bernstein, Floyd and Arlen may be...
....Verdi did it first.  Hats off.

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