Investigating The Tigers (14) Chinese whispers : Act 3, scenes 1 and 2 (1)

Adrian Ure

Part 14 : Chinese whispers : Act 3 scene 1 and 2:1 - Adrian Ure Apologies for the absence of music examples - these will be added as soon as possible - JRM

A police sergeant receives news by telephone that a Zeppelin raid is expected. After passing on the warning to the Tigers, he tells his men what measures to take.

Analysis of this third act of The Tigers is peculiarly difficult. The formal procedures are not particularly susceptible to traditional analytical methods. It becomes quite impossible, for instance, systematically to describe progressions from key to key. Although the music is never atonal in the accepted sense, Brian’s frequent employment of common chords gives the impression of numerous very localised tonalities superseding one another.

This gives a clue to how the music is organised. Just as key centres are localised within the space of a few bars, the standard thematic unit is a phraselet of a few notes, meaningless in itself, which is worked repeatedly, occasionally with an effect of near obsessiveness. To be sure, these procedures can be observed earlier, but Act 3 represents their most systematic and extended use.

Two tentative reasons could be advanced for this; one is that it gives Brian a means to escape from the tyranny of regular phrase-lengths; the other, that it enables him to respond more swiftly to the text. In fact, fairly regular phrases remain, although the divisions are less obvious - while the paradoxical result of the greater tonal fluidity is to create a sense of stasis when harmonic movement is held up even briefly. These periods of stasis typically coincide with a spirit of ironic mockery, as in the passage between 301, 6 and 302, 4. (For a comparable example, cf the Bishop sequence in Act 2 Scene 3.)

While continuous development has not been eschewed, the speed of the developmental process, as well as the type of materials used, has been modified. Detailed analysis would be more than usually tedious, but an example would be the ‘microvariations’ which accompany the Sergeant’s instructions to his constables. The examples (exx 73, 74) show how just one figure evolves in the course of this passage. There are parallel processes for several other figures.

Once again, regular diatonic phrases, on the few occasions when they do occur, tend to have a satiric impulse. The theme of ex 73, which gives rise to other offshoots besides ex 74, is one such phrase.

The main events of the scene can now be summarised. A single flute trill breaks the stillness, imitating a phone ringing as best it can, as the curtain rises on the interior of a police station. (Brian perhaps intends a reminiscence of the ‘police bell’ and solitary constable of Prologue Scene 2; both passages deflate the musical and dramatic tension which has built up during the previous Symphonic Dance.) The orchestra ‘wakes up’ with a series of repetitive figures, a good example of the composer’s cellular or ‘mosaic’ technique. Following a signal from the clerk who answered it, the Sergeant plods to the phone, to the accompaniment of ex 73.

The fact that the ensuing telephone conversation may be the first on the operatic stage is less significant than the subterfuges to which it forces Brian. During the whole of this opening portion of the scene we hear only the Sergeant’s side of the dialogue. This is perhaps the real novelty in a medium a large part of which has rested on dialogue since its inception. So the Sergeant’s interjections - ‘Forty-five did you say? Fifty 1 miles inland’ - only become comprehensible as the scene develops.

At this point Brian is keeping his stolid copper within the com-pass of a sixth; this is evidently the latter’s ‘telephone manner’ as, with the exception of a couple of notes, he adopts it also during the subsequent conversation with the Tigers’ orderly-room clerk. His opening salutations, brusque as they are, take place within an amusingly incongruous sound world, as if a pass-age from Der Rosenkavalier had strayed into the orchestra pit. He then relays the message, ‘Allow me to congratulate you on your birthday. The Police have received a message from head-quarters, that forty-five Zeppelins are on their way, and all lights must be put out fifty miles from coast.’ (One might as well re-count it, since a large part of the act depends on the interpretation of this message, and is indeed incomprehensible without it.)

Having conveyed his news, the sergeant bangs the phone down, and summons his men with four bars of piercing whistle, augmented in the orchestra by piccolo, flutes and clarinets in an epitome of the trills that pervade this and the following scene. Explaining their mission to them, the Sergeant starts off somewhat portentously, his music being reminiscent of Henry’s most pompous idiom (in Prologue Scene 1).

When they hear that Zeppelins are on their way, the constables rush to put out the lights - this I take to be the purpose of the seven-bar gap in the vocal line - before being assured by their superior that this is premature. He sends them out in pairs to do various unlikely tasks, such as stopping all dogs from barking. The ‘microvariations’ forming the backbone of this section have already been discussed; they are separated, as are the instructions to each pair, by cheeky scraps of melody which somehow underline the futility of the enterprise (ex 75). There is a suggestion of Pop Goes the Weasel, perhaps a derivation from 303, 7; either way, a prime example of the Great Bassoon Joke.

An instant four-part choir, the constables recount their duties. They are given out of order, culminating in the climatic announcement, ‘It is the Tigers’ birthday’. The effect is of a kind of comic non-celebration, as if these drastic measures are being taken in honour of the regiment 2. The policemen march out stiffly, just in time for a hasty close in E major.

A policeman patrolling the river bridge helps to evict drinkers from an inn. The piano score conveys an even sketchier idea than usual of the lovely interlude between Scenes 1 and 2, suffused as it is with the most delicate chamber scoring. In particular, Brian conjures up a pastoral, folky atmosphere unique in Act 3. The initial theme (ex 76), which incorporates the trill motif, appears unaccompanied (aside from a single low bare fifth) on a lone flute, and is succeeded by solo violin roulades (ex 77).

Both these instruments are prominent in the interlude, together with their associated themes. Note also the descending chromatics in ex 77, which colour the music in a way slightly reminiscent of Green Pastures. This seems to be intentional, since ex 76 also bears a marked resemblance to ex 56 in that movement. The erotic implications of this resemblance become clearer as the scene proceeds.

Subsequently ex 76(b) is used on its own in a variety of contexts, occasionally with an ascending rather than a descending profile.

The analysis of Act 2 Scene 2 (in Part 8) illustrates similar compositional processes. In what is becoming a familiar pattern, ex 76 is succeeded by a moderato which introduces a more decisive, martial element (315, 8). This time the echoes are of Act 1 Scene 1, with the rhythmic elements [dotted quaver+semiquaver] and [3 semiquavers+semiquaver rest] finding regular expression. As the curtain rises, a scuttering figure on strings (ex 78(a)), itself not a million miles from ex 77—or ex 74 for that matter—metamorphoses into a ‘joyous’ horn call from behind the scenes (ex 78(b)). It gives indications of a hunt, which assumes satirical dimensions as the (male) drinkers at the local inn are run to earth - one is left to infer - by their wives and girlfriends, who then escort them home.

First the men are heard, still inside the inn, giving voice to ex 78(b) adagio, their ‘la las’ again suggesting Green Pastures. There is a yell of ‘Throw them out’, presumably from the landlord, while the constable - concerned perhaps at the lights going on as well as the need to get the drinkers out of the area - hammers at the door, emphasising his actions by repeated F sharps near the top of his vocal register.

Ex 76 lurches into view, accompanied by an extraordinarily suggestive staggering figure in the bass instruments. References to ex 76 continue with an adaptation of (b), Allegro fuoco, as the men, having just been told of the approaching danger, recriminate incoherently. Scoring and harmonies are once more fragmented and elusive as they hurry on, hushed by their women and intent on shelter from the cold.

NL 145 © Adrian Ure 1999

  1. The full score says ‘fifteen’ at this point. I mention it for what it is worth, because, if this version is adopted, it lends credence to the Sergeant Major’s later complaint that ‘the fault lies with the pleece’. ↩︎

  2. The minor differences between what the constables say here and what they have been told need not give cause for concern. The order they ‘miss’ is to patrol the river bridge, although they act on it, as the following scene proves. The Tigers have also been asked to guard the bridge as well. There need be no inconsistency here - the police are specifically there to ensure that passing traffic has its lights switched off - but it is interesting that there is no evidence of the Tigers’ presence at the bridge in Scene 2. The Colonel’s presence there is evidently referable to other causes. ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 145, 1999