This article reports on my work-in-progress to create an Explorer’s Guide to Early Opera, under the title The Play of Music & Time. More about the project here. Written within the discipline of Reflective Practice, this post simultaneously documents the on-going process and is itself part of that process, a considered “thinking-aloud” that helps establish a blue-print for continuing the design. And no doubt, that blue print will be adapted, along the way…
Listening again to Peter & the Wolf (1936) – score here – video with animations here – and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945) – sound with animated score here – was an experience both inspiring and somewhat daunting. I feel a palpable sense of awe at the achievements of Prokofiev and Britten in creating these expertly crafted and artistically powerful works.
These two models are of course, very different. Peter would fit into Monteverdi’s concept of favola in musica, a story in music. More about Monteverdi’s Orfeo here. Prokofiev’s fable resembles the Grimm brothers’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen: underneath the charming fairy tale of a young boy, his grandad and various animals there is an undercurrent of danger and violence. As in an opera, music and action are united, the spoken narration is like recitatives that link the instrumental ‘arias’ and duos, the final tutti is a rousing chorus.
Although by 1946 Britten had already written two operas, Paul Bunyan and Peter Grimes, as well as many settings of thought-provoking poetry, his Guide is presented not as a story, but as a set of Variations, creating a certain abstract quality, in contrast to Prokofiev’s naïve, but vivid realism. Britten seems to write for more sophisticated listeners, and formal construction is part of his educational message. Not only are we introduced to the instruments of a much larger orchestra, but those instruments are categorised into sections (strings, woodwind, brass, percussion), individually itemised, and then re-assembled in – who else would have dared to aim such a thing at Young Persons? – a thrilling double-fugue.
The power of Prokofiev’s art is hidden underneath what seems to be innocent pastoral: Peter is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Britten’s intellectual explorations proclaim both the seriousness and the fun of symphonic writing: his large orchestra with its close-knit team of elite soloists becomes a playground of the mind, a space-time for rhythmic and colourful music-games.
The Play’s the Thing
We play music. And opera is also a play: a theatrical drama in music, and an act of playfulness that romps across multiple media. The first baroque ‘operas’ were often called rappresentatione: a show, a Play.
So I still like my title The Play of Music & Time, with its echo of the very first baroque music-drama, Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima & Corpo (1600) – introduction to the first opera here – Cavalieri’s Preface here. Following Monteverdi and Cavalieri, my two protagonists are La Musica and Il Tempo, the personifications of Music and Time – female and male. Soul and Body are united in a third character, Life, also embodied onstage in many early operas.
But I’m puzzling over how to reconcile 17th-century aesthetics with a design that will speak to young audiences and to listeners unfamiliar with Orfeo, Celos, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme or even Dido & Aeneas. What is the appropriate Rhetorical Decorum, an artistic structure of what is suitable? What compositorial Voice will by its Nature be understood by all, at once charming the senses and captivating their minds?
Music & Time in the models
The common features of Peter and the Guide are extreme economy of material, tight control of the balance between unity and variety, and masterful orchestration.
Britten confines himself to variations on an eight-bar theme taken from Purcell’s music for the play, Abdelazar (1695): the only new material is the pair of fugue subjects, introduced just before the final recapitulation of the Purcellian theme. Each variation lasts about a minute, there is strong contrast between successive variations, and though the theme is hard to perceive in some variations, it reappears triumphantly at the end. Within each variation, the sequence-structure of Purcell’s melody encourages Britten to use many short-term repeats.
Prokofiev works with different time-scales, inventing many themes (one for each character in the story), and with many (and more obvious) reappearances of those themes. Variation is mostly confined to changes of tonality and accompaniment, allowing the original melody to shine through clearly. Each thematic statement lasts fifteen seconds or less; often there is an immediate repeat before moving on another theme, but each melody returns every time the corresponding character re-appears in the story. There is some directly descriptive music for various action-scenes, and a new march-tune is introduced for the finale, which also reprises the character-melodies with touches of light counterpoint.
In operatic terms, we meet most of the dramatis personae in what might be thought of as Act I. This concludes with Grandad shutting the garden gate to protect Peter from the Wolf lurking nearby in the forest. Act II is all action, as the Wolf attacks and is captured by Peter, with help from the Bird. New characters enter for Act III, the Huntsmen. Exposition – action – new characters and resolution: this is a schema that could fit many three-act operas.
Both composers have superlatively keen ears for orchestral colour, matching varied orchestrations with appropriate musical material to offer young listeners memorable examples of just how each instrument sounds at its best. What could be more perfect than Prokofiev’s chalumeau-register clarinet-cat, or his quacking oboe-duck? And then Britten’s exchanges of gravity-defying two-octave arpeggios turn a pair of cats into acrobats who always land on their feet. Meanwhile both composers effortlessly loop the loop with flute-bird aerobatics.
One can be equally enthusiastic about both treatments of bassoon-grandad, wolf-horns, and hunter-timpani. Trumpets are used to good effect in both scores, and one might even wish that Prokofiev had invented a character-role for his solo trumpet.
Rhetoric at Play
For my own piece, I have some ideas about orchestration of 17th-century continuo-instruments. But the challenges I am grappling with are the balance of unity/variety and the question of how to introduce repeats of material previously heard – this seems essential for my audience – whilst remaining true to the early baroque aesthetic.
The first ‘operas’ were verse-plays set to music in a text-based style that imitated the declamation of a fine actor in spoken theatre. The poet’s choice of strophic or refrain structures might lead to some short-term musical repeats; dance-songs will repeat each phrase and instrumental ritornelli unify an entire scene. But since the same lines of poetry are unlikely to be repeated frequently from scene to scene, so the music also avoids long-term repeating structures. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the first pastoral ritornello reappears to identify scenes in Arcadia, but no other melody is carried forward from one of the five Acts to any other. Listening to the Rhetoric of Orfeo here. The leitmotifs heard (repeatedly, and very effectively) throughout Peter and also in Prokofiev’s (1919) Love of Three Oranges are not part of the seicento style.
I’m planning to use ground basses to give unity within each scene as well as contrast between one scene and another. Grounds are certainly an essential, and very attractive, feature of baroque music. But I haven’t yet decided on an appropriate solution for creating a sense of familiarity for a first-time listener and unity from one scene to another, i.e. some kind of long-term repeating structure.
Meanwhile, in my search for baroque models, my Facebook survey
What are your top ten 17th-century operas?
– the survey results are here – has provided an embarrassment of riches beyond my wildest nightmares. I already knew that it was an impossible task, to introduce new listeners to all the early music-dramas I know and love, within a suitable duration for a children’s opera. Now I have a list of many more baroque operas to listen to, learn from, and learn to love!
Britten’s dedication of the Guide to the four Maud children “for their edification and enjoyment” reminded me of two of the three aims of Rhetoric. Perhaps Prokofiev goes even further in hitting all three rhetorical targets – docere, delectare, movere – to teach, to delight and to move the emotions. Even as a composer sets out to teach, he can only touch his audience’s hearts if he first captures their ears with delightful sounds.
La Musica declaims in the Prologue to Orfeo:
With a golden continuo-instrument
My singing usually
Beguiles mortal ears for a while;
And in this way
With the structured harmony
of the Music of the Spheres,
I can even move your souls.
So how might those heavenly orbits circle round in ear-charming repeats? That’s what I want to know….