October 29, 2017

Two "Golden West" motifs; one born of the Gold Rush

Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West opens with a big orchestral flourish leading to a sustained chord. The chord is harmonically unstable; it doesn't establish a key. It's followed by a sequence in which that same chord crashes along in descending motion:
This passage is immediately followed by the same three bars transposed a fourth lower, further muddying any sense of tonality. The effect?

Chaos.

And that is precisely what the composer intends. These chaotic, tonally unhinged chords, the beginning of a seventy-second orchestral prelude, form one of the principal motifs in the opera, a motif that will be heard throughout the drama. Puccini crafted it to convey a sense of the untamed wilderness in which he set his opera: the mountainous region of the California Gold Rush.

As mentioned in last week's post, the men who came to the California territory in 1848, lured by reports of gold nuggets just waiting to be picked up out of riverbeds, faced an arduous and lonely existence. With no transcontinental railway, it could take months of perilous journeying to arrive. The recent Mexican-American War left a simmering stew of racial tensions in an uneasy society of Americans, Mexicans and Native American tribesmen. Law and order was of the rough-and-ready variety; we've all seen Westerns depicting claim-jumpers and thieves with "gold fever" (a term employed by Sheriff Jack Rance in the opera). And the weather was not the balmy paradise of Southern California; the blizzard in Puccini's second act is no exaggeration. To make things worse, once a gold miner made it to Gold Country, he was pretty much stuck there indefinitely, Fine if he had a profitable claim, tedious if he, like many, only broke even, and a likely death sentence for those who lost money.

Everything described in the paragraph above is what Puccini meant in those opening bars. In them, we hear the howling of mountain storms, the ruggedness of the terrain, the chaos of lawlessness and even the isolation and loneliness of the men. For example, the orchestra quietly murmurs the motif when Jim Larkens breaks down, sobbing that he wants to leave and go home in Act 1.

But, as they say on late-night infomercials, "that's not all"!

Puccini also extends its meaning to include the spiritual chaos of the human heart. Thus, we hear it when Minnie, teaching a lesson on Psalm 51, explains to her "ragazzi" that no sinner is beyond redemption. We hear it again when, in Act II, Minnie allows Dick Johnson to be the first man to kiss her, the motif in this case describing Minnie as she gives in to the emotional "chaos" of her first romance as well as Dick's awareness that he is living a lie and thus unworthy of her.

But back to our example! In the prelude, the chaos/wilderness motif is immediately followed by another motif. This one is the opposite both in directionality and implied meaning. Ascending higher and higher, it stands for order in place of chaos and redemption in place of spiritual chaos (or, in Dick's case, his guilt and sin).

This motif, too, will be heard continually in the opera, the yang to the earlier motif's yin. Notably, Dick will sing it when making his confession to Minnie in Act II; the miners and Minnie will sing it as they capitulate to Minnie as she pleads for Dick's life in the opera's final scene.

The Prelude states both motifs in succession twice before concluding with a new idea; a jazzy latin dance rhythm:
This, it will become clear, is the theme of Dick's alter ego, the bandit Ramerrez. Thus, the Act I prelude becomes a sort of thumbnail summary of the entire work, making it clear that the focus of The Girl of the Golden West will be Johnson's redemption and the resolution of his dual nature.

As we'll observe in my next post, this will heavily shape the nature of the vocal writing in Puccini's American opera and how audiences have come to perceive the two main characters.

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