Part 16 : Chimes at midnight : Act 3 scene 3 and Finale - Adrian Ure Apologies for the absence of music examples - these will be added as soon as possible - JRM
Within a month of war being declared in August 1914, there was an unfounded rumour that a million Russian troops had landed at Aberdeen in Scotland and passed through England on their way to the Western Front. The detail that they were seen to have had ‘snow on their boots’ was supposed to add credence to the report. 1
Two cooks play a practical joke by hanging ropes from the bell tower and ringing the bells in the middle of the night.
The scene known in its orchestral arrangement as Shadow Dance is a delicate, elusive affair, in which the constant movement of semiquavers is preceded and concluded by brief periods of stasis, one of which also occurs at roughly the halfway point. Almost all of it consists of Brian’s textural mosaics, yet despite this, it is still possible to observe a process of deconstruction at work, at least during the second half of the scene.
As before, the 15-bar introduction is an epitome of the scene to come (Ex 84). The elements of which it consists are by now familiar: the pentatonic figure ascending on flutes at the outset, mirrored by a descending bass figure (b) two bars later; the augmented triad adumbrated by (a); and the rising chromatic scale (c) which actually ushers the curtain up. Another element that one might expect to feature strongly, the rhythm in the bass at bar 9 of Ex 84, in fact appears only once more in the scene, namely when the First Cook volunteers to take guard (365 + 6). This may be a simple association of ideas.
Ex 85 follows directly. The cooks are characterised by a semiquaver-quaver movement in the vocal line, which proves typical. As usual Brian plunges straight into the action, without further preamble. It is possible without too much ingenuity to derive Ex 85 from Ex 84(b).
A more immediately striking ‘cooks’ theme’ putters around in the bass a few bars later (363 +9, Ex 86).
The orchestral accompaniment is full of suggestive detail, constantly threatening the coherence of the structure, and with sudden eruptions into forte, all the more startling when the general level of dynamics is kept down to piano or pianissimo.
As the Second Cook unwillingly departs for the rooftop, his companion remarks, ‘Now, my Colonel, soon there shall be a nightmare’. The use of this word, redolent of the opening ballet of Act 3 and crucial exchanges in Scene 2, and looking forward to the climax of the Finale, is central to Scene 3 both metaphorically and literally. It is accompanied by another statement of Ex 86, and followed by a repeat of Ex 84(a), this brief instrumental interlude with familiar material serving effectively to bisect the scene. Another rising chromatic scale introduces the second part.
Here the references to Ex 84-86 become more frenetic, elusive and brief. Ex 86 is reduced to anxiety-laden exchanges of its first bar, between bass and treble registers (370 + 1 etc). (The Second Cook is frightened because he sees ‘someone… looking at me’ by the chimney, another verbal reminiscence of the ballet scene.) What saves the music from collapsing into incoherence is the very firm tonal grounding of its main elements. Ex 85 commences time and again on D, and keeps returning to D minorish—although the treachery of those augmented triads causes a few moments of anxiety between 371 + 7 and 372 + 4.
Similarly, references and allusions to Ex 86 always begin on B flat, whatever the immediate tonal context. This by itself would not be sufficient to maintain cohesion, were it not for the brevity of the scene, and the short gap between occurrences of the main thematic elements.
As both cooks disappear, their task accomplished, another ascending chromatic scale introduces a fragment of Ex 86, and the augmented triads of Ex 84(a), rounding things off neatly.
Those with vocal scores might like to note that the manuscript full score adds several directions to this scene, which help to make sense of what is happening:
365 + 9 First Cook pushes him - persuading him
366 + 8 [Second Cook] goes
374 + 1, 2 In 374 + 1, [Second Cook] disappears
In 374 + 2, First Cook disappears. (The vocal score omits the first of these directions and misprints the second one.)
A small but niggling problem remains. If the cooks are disguised, as the score suggests, how is the audience to know they are cooks? It maybe doesn’t matter, but one of them does address his mate as ‘Cookie’, which will baffle anybody not ‘in the know’. Perhaps they can assume their disguises as they walk on stage?
The ringing of the bells summons firemen, policemen, bargemen, villagers and the Tigers themselves, all seeking the cause of the disturbance, and all at cross purposes with each other. An augmented-triad arpeggio descends swiftly to the depths. Over a pianissimo D on the organ (16’ and 32’ pedals), comes the clangour of bells, tuned in E flat and B flat; the cooks have wasted no time. ‘Time—Midnight. The design of this Finale is an approach from dead silence to mad tumult. Similarly the lighting must approach from darkness to Mont Duresco in flames.’
So says the vocal score, ensuring that the sound of bells—somewhat reminiscent of the coronation scene in Boris Godunov—is balanced, at the end of the opera, by a surely intentional reference to other operas which have already been glanced at in the course of the work. ‘Mont Duresco in flames’ is the comic correlative of the funeral pyres in Khovanschina and Les troyens, but above all, of course, Götterdämmerung.
The heroes who were borne to a fairground Valhalla in the Prologue have witnessed an appropriate end to their celestial home. Except that, once again, there is a crucial difference between the published (vocal) and the autograph (full) score; in the latter, there is no evidence whatever that an actual fire has occurred. The final sentence in the stage direction quoted above is simply missing. I would imagine that the score as published represents two unresolved conceptions of how Brian wanted his opera to end.
In one, the Wagnerian implications of the Ride of the Valkyries in the second scene would be played out to a parodic conclusion; in the other, the Finale would consist simply of the working-out of the cooks’ practical joke and the policemen’s earlier misunderstanding. Once again, one is forced to regret the presumed loss or destruction of any manuscript libretto, vocal score or sketches. Without them, one is frequently forced to speculate.
The bells are still sounding as the orchestra leaps into life with muscular, athletic counterpoint, of a type maintained throughout this section. It is a jubilant, brassy noise, starting in D major but soon moving to other keys, and gives the impression at first of being athematic. Soon, however, some motives show themselves as significant and susceptible to further development (Ex 87).
The music builds to fortissimo. (It has been mezzo-forte or forte almost from the outset.) The firemen (TTBB) enter to a new figure incorporating the augmented triad (Ex 88, which incidentally shows the standard of difficulty Brian expects his chorus to surmount as a matter of course - those off-beat entries must be fearsome to manage.)
The metre has changed, from 4/4 to 2/4; as the firemen run off and the police (BarBB) run on, it changes again, to 3/4. Ex 89 is from the middle of this passage (379 + 3); it shows that, while the texture has remained fairly constant, Ex 87(x) has evolved to a rather more familiar shape.
They go off calling for the firemen. Next on are villagers and bargemen 2 (SATB), for whom the metre extends to 4/4. Wild rumours about fire and Zeppelins are resolved with wonder and hilarity at the sight of ‘Tigers in pyjamas’ emerging from their lair. Three bars based on Ex 79 are followed by another metre change for the Tigers (TTBB), to 6/8. (The pulse remains constant throughout, so the effect is seamless.)
Now the stage begins to fill, as first the firemen (to Ex 88) then the policemen (to a figure first heard in connection with the villagers) come back on. The others assure both groups that there is no need for their presence. Everyone launches into a vocal free-for-all. The orchestral texture is dominated by Ex 79 and a quintuplet figure incorporating Ex 87(a). Augmented triads abound, the metre has settled down to a march-like 2/4 and the general atmosphere recalls the holiday mood anticipating Sir John’s first appearance, especially when his name begins to be passed from group to group. Finally he is spotted, ‘wearing pyjamas marked white and green’.
It is a heady moment, and it is here that the reference to Act 1 is unmistakable, with regular chord changes at the approach to the cadence. The final chord (augmented triad on F with a B flat bass) is wittily signalled by an inversion of Ex 79—one of the few overt instances of inversion in the work.
The Colonel demands an explanation from the Sergeant Major, and dismisses everyone. They are not so keen to go, however, seeing the proceedings as a further excuse for celebration. n abrupt diminution to pianissimo occurs as the Colonel comes forward. He plaintively demands the presence of his Sergeant Major, as scraps of Ex 79 and Ex 80—the Mont Duresco ‘nightmare’ theme—drift desolately across the orchestral landscape. The former shows a new-found disposition to go whole-tone.
Clad in his night shirt, the Sergeant Major appears, only to be berated by his superior officer—‘Never salute me again when you meet me in your night shirt’. Ex 27(a) booms, but the RSM cuts a pathetic figure, despite at one point adopting the orotund formula of Ex 79 himself. The music is tonally adrift, as it was in the Sergeant Major’s rebuke after the haymaking, but now he is reduced to largely unaccompanied recitative. Three bassoons supply a comically solemn commentary.
The explanation—wait for it!—is that the police misheard. It is the Kaiser’s birthday, not the Tigers’, and that all this activity was unnecessary, as lights were to be put out fifteen, not fifty, miles from the coast. What the significance of the Kaiser’s birthday is, and why it should be mentioned at all in connection with an air raid, no-one bothers to explain 3. Is there a bit of wartime slang here?
Ex 80 sounds again appropriately, as the Colonel comments, ‘This is the worst of all the nightmares’, and wearily suggests the people go home. Not a bit of it, they respond - it must be the Tigers’ birthday, ‘never was there such a night!’ Jubilant counterpoint breaks out again, and Ex 79 resounds from all sides, coupled with a vaulting arpeggio figure first heard at the opening of the scene (Fig. 376) related to Ex 1(a). And again the Tigers are eulogised in terms bearing no relationship to their actual achievements.
Suddenly, the noise breaks off. A silent bar ensues—then, chimes in the orchestra, steadily diminishing in volume. ‘Lights very slowly and gradually disappear… Police go. Only Sir John Stout remains in centre of stage deep in his thoughts. The stage becomes quite dark except for a small red light in the direction of Mont Duresco.’ There is a chromatic sigh from the chorus ‘in the distance behind scenes’; and the last words in the opera, before the final peaceful D major chord, are reserved for the main protagonists.
Sir John (awakening): Dear Pamela.
Pamela: Dear Sir John.
NL 153 © Adrian Ure 2001
N Rees The Guinness book of humorous anecdotes (1994), p162 ↩︎
The full score specifies "Thames bargemen". Pedants might like to put this information together with the implied distance from the coast (greater than fifteen, but less than fifty miles) to create a range of possible locations for the action. ↩︎
Pedants might also like to note that this reference fixes the date of the action as 27 January. ↩︎
Newsletter, NL 153