November 9, 2014

Pinafore: looking ahead to Ogden Nash and back to Pamina

What does American poet-humorist Ogden Nash have to do with H. M. S. Pinafore?

A lot, from where I'm standing.

I don't know whether or not you Savoyards have noticed, but much of Nash's characteristic style owes a LOT to a moment in Act 2. I'm thinking of Josephine's recitative before her big aria "A simple sailor".

Let's compare a passage from that recitative with a typical bit of light verse from Nash. First, here's Josephine, with her knickers all in a twist:

On the one hand, papa's luxurious home, hung with ancestral armour and old brasses,
Carved oak tapestry from distant Rome, rare "blue and white" Venetian finger glasses,
Rich oriental rugs, luxurious sofa pillows,
And everything that isn't old, from Gillow's.
And on the other, a dark and dingy room, in some back street with stuffy children crying,
Where organs yell, and clacking housewives fume, and clothes are hanging out all day a-drying,
With one cracked looking-glass to see your face in
And dinner served up in a pudding basin!

Now here's an excerpt from an Ogden Nash rumination on marriage called "I do, I will, I have":

Just as I know that there are two Hagens, Walter and Copen,
I know that marriage is a legal and religious alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut and a woman who can't with the window open.
Moreover, just as I am unsure of the difference between flora and fauna and flotsam and jetsam,
I am quite sure that marriage is the alliance of two people one of whom never remembers birthdays and the other never forgetsam,
And he refuses to believe there is a leak in the water pipe or the gas pipe and she is convinced she is about to asphyxiate or drown,
And she says Quick get up and get my hairbrushes off the windowsill, it's raining in, and he replies Oh they're all right, it's only raining straight down.

Case closed!

One more suggestion for your consideration:

Isn't Josephine's first-act aria "Sorry her lot" a subtle parody of Pamina's "Ach, ich fühl’s" from The Magic Flute? They share tempos - a lugubrious Andante - and both characters are emoting about their heartbreak. The textures are similar as well, with the orchestra playing simple chords underneath the vocal line. Both are in duple meter, 6/8 and 9/8 respectively. And let's compare the opening phrases of those vocal lines. First, here's Pamina's:
How is this melody put together? It begins with a short descending scale fragment starting on the 5th note (the dominant, for you music theory nerds -- and I know you're out there) down to the keynote of G (the tonic). That's followed by a graceful and ethereal ascending octave leap to the high G, which begins another descending fragment.

Got it? Okey-dokey. Now here's the opening phrase of "Sorry her lot" from Pinafore:
What have we got here? Is there a descending scale fragment starting on the dominant? Check. (It takes a little detour in the second bar, but does land on the tonic in bar 3). Is there a graceful ascending octave leap? Check. Does that begin another descending fragment? Check. The melodies are clearly close cousins in structure and expression.

Finally - what does this mean; was it intentional on the part of Sullivan? Given that his modus operandi was to include parodies of famous operas, including Mendelssohn, Donizetti, Verdi and others, I'd say yes. 

Given that, we have to look on Josephine's "Pamina connection" as a bit of sly humor. It's another example of Sullivan's music "playing it straight" and staying in character regardless of the absurdity of the operetta's plot and characters as a whole. In this fashion the composer followed the lead of his librettist, who famously demanded the same style from his actors on stage. 

That's probably it for my Pinafore posts. I'll write about this-and-that in the opera world until the first of the year, when we'll start exploring Richard Strauss's Salome. (It's pretty much EXACTLY like Gilbert and Sullivan, just with more veils...)

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