Part 3 : Coppers : Prologue, scene 1 (2) - Adrian Ure Apologies for the absence of music examples - these will be added as soon as possible - JRM
- Very strange don’t you think?’
- ‘Not at all, only a bit mad.’
A pair of constables seeking a missing character are bamboozled by two stallholders, then helped by a ‘Columbine’. On the arrival of a man riding an elephant, they become convinced it is he they want, but the town crier appears, reads out the official description and assumes responsibility for the search.
Policemen appear so many times in the course of this opera, and as one-dimensional officious stereotypes, that one might at first he forgiven for imagining it to be an unhibited slur on the Force. Since the days of Peel the police have been a favourite target for the attentions of musical humorists, of course: nowhere more so than in the music-hall, where any tilt at authority was liable to draw an especially generous response from its oppressed patrons.
The present pair are indeed refugees from some music-hall act, an impression underlined by the melody ‘derived from [a] well-known Music Hall Song’ which blossoms forth from the bassoons’ gurgles accompanying their arrival. But the music-hall connotations do not by themselves explain why Brian has chosen to make this theme the basis of a series of Symphonic variations (his own title) lasting throughout the remainder of the scene.
At first glance, it might seem that the arrival of Has anybody here seen Kelly?, and its subsequent domination of the musical fabric, would upset the delicate balance of this first scene by effectively splitting it in two. On closer inspection - and this claim I hope to justify later on - it subtly reinforces Brian’s dramatic pattern while musically, it remains stylistically congruent to what has preceded it, merely intensifying the techniques of continual development which have previously been deployed.
This is because Brian has not let Kelly wander on to the scene unannounced, but has carefully laid the ground for its appearance. As I noted in the previous article, its initial rhythm – four semiquavers+quaver – has already had a significant part to play. Thirds, both major and minor, have attained greater prominence, and they are all over the place in Kelly; indeed apart from a few perfect fourths virtually the whole tune is comprised of them. Consider, too, omly a few bars earlier, the figuration at fig 25 plus 4 bars and again at fig 25, 7, and compare it with fig 27, 9 and 10 (bars 5 and 6 of ex 5). Of direct thematic reminiscence there is none, save for one peculiar instance — bar 10 of ex 5 directly recalls fig 2, 4 — but since the earlier statement was a comparatively insignificant piece of passagework, it seems reasonable to assume that the recall was unconscious on Brian’s part.
It is worth remarking that Has anybody here seen Kelly?, as such, is never heard. When Brian says that his theme is ‘derived from [a] popular Music Hall song’, he means just that. In fact, he and Kelly part company as early as the fourth bar. A direct comparison between Brian’s version and the original reveals a master’s hand (ex 5).
Ex 5 to be added
Of course Brian’s version is the more repetitive: that is just the point. With a limited time at his disposal, he has to do the maximum to ensure that the salient parts of the theme — the points he wishes to develop most forcibly in the variations which follow — are impressed indelibly in the minds of his listeners. But notice the unobtrusive rhythmic shifts in the central section (bars 5-8 of ex 5). The words have a significance of their own, to which I shall return.
Zealous analysts may like to consider the opening of the pastoral cor anglais tune which follows, Più lento (ex 6), as an inversion of the initial motif (a) of ex 5, but its continuation maintains the barest of connections with the Kelly theme.
Ex 6 to be added
As the variations unfold it becomes apparent that Brian is treating his intervals very flexibly and is liable to press his rhythms into all sorts of shapes (although he also uses pure rhythm as an identifying factor) so that the distinction between (a) and (c), for instance, disappears quite quickly.
Like its ‘parent’, ex 6 does have a beginning, a middle and an end; the first and last variation to do so. In fact, the term Symphonic variations may be rather misleading. These are not ‘symphonic variations’ in the sense that Dvorák or Parry would have understood: a series of quite well-defined short movements in which some aspect of the theme can clearly be discerned. Brian’s example cannot be split into separate variations in this way: the emphasis is on the word ‘symphonic’. In fact, his practice here is not at all distinct from his usual method whereby in a continually evolving process the possibilities of a small group of figures are explored to the utmost. The only difference is that here the figures all derive from one basic theme stated plainly at the outset. (In fact his formal procedure is very similar to that found in the early Fantastic variations on an old rhyme (1907).)
With the resumption of the Allegro moderato tempo, four bars along the lines of ex 5 are followed by an animated conversation between treble and bass on some of the possibilities raised by fig (a), which at one point include ex 3. In contrast to the previous section, which was firmly in E major, these bars touch on a wide variety of keys. The seemingly new theme beginning at fig 31, once again owes its provenance to ex 5 (ex 7).
Ex 7 to be added
The final bar of the quotation illustrates a disguise which ex5(a) is increasingly apt to assume from now on. Its last two motes are the premise for a free passage whose stuttering repeated rhythms are those of ex5(c’) (and the pervading rhy— thins of ex7). Only a close study of the score can reveal the subtlety with which these links are established.
So far, from the entry of the policemen, everything has been played in dumb show (or was in the broadcast: it is not clear from the vocal score whether the police are intended to speak or simply to gesture). However ‘this is interrupted by entrance of enormous elephant’ (whose frenetic trumpeting is supplied with extraordinary realism by means of grinding brass dissonances), a keeper yelling ‘Make way!’, and an interlude consisting of diminutions of ex l(a). There is no getting away from it: that elephant is on stage for something like 3½ minutes, and any producer who attempts to excise it will be lacerating both Brian’s text and his intentions.
It should be apparent even from a summary analysis of chief events in the music that the symphonic argument is very closely knit:
fig 34,6 to fig 35,5 Allegro vivo:
Chromatic chatterings alternate with statements of ex 5(a) and its modified version (a’) shown in ex 7. A passage founded on ex 7 gives way to another based on its rhythms.
fig 35,6 to fig 36,4 Allegro moderato:
The foundation for this passage is ex 5 (a’), whose rhythms are hammered out time and time again.
fig 36,5 to fig 37,3:
Becoming obsessed with ex 5(a’) Brian subjects its first two notes and its last two to independent development. (b) and (c) reappear, as in the following (bass in both half-bars is retrograde of treble):
Ex to be added
E x 5(c) again, repeated twice (a fact concealed by cunning octave displacements). (Note how Brian is once again forging a link with (a)):
Ex to be added
(The G printed at * in the vocal score is a misprint.) The same process is then renewed with the notes C,B,E.
Try as he might to clarify the situation by careful placing and use of gestures, no director will be capable of enabling the audience to follow all that is going on here, since there are eleven separate vocal lines to be heard most of the time, including the four-part chorus of bystanders who break into ‘La las’. The keeper rounds on them, telling them to be quiet. The stallholders implore the elephant rider to buy their wares; laughingly he refuses. Meanwhile an argument develops between the keeper and the policemen, who insist that the rider is their missing person. The policemen are about to produce their trump card, Columbine, but the elephant rider’s question to them, ‘Which lady?’ seems to suggest that she has taken advantage of the mayhem to disappear discreetly. In the midst of the confusion the Crier appears.
The orchestration of what follows is so astonishing that the passage would merit notice on this count alone, but Brian’s scoring is combined with an unobtrusive mastery of his thematic resources. Against the pulsating rhythm of ex 5(a) on one note in the horns, a four-note ostinato (based on the ‘CBE’ figure in the previous few bars?) yawns in the depths, balanced by ghostly transformations of ex 5(a) and (b) in the violins (see for example fig 38,5 and 7).
One small point: why, with his full description of the missing person, does the Crier say ‘name unknown’? There could of course be some perfectly prosaic explanation (perhaps the people from whom he has escaped, wishing to avoid embarrassment, have withheld the name). But the fugitive is at once stamped as a man of mystery, even before he steps on to the stage.
The Crier’s final action is to dismiss contemptuously the policemen (perhaps because, in this Jonsonian world of misrule, the matter of a missing person is ‘out of the hands’ of the Met as soon as it is proclaimed by the carnival ‘authorities’). Their departure elicits a wild burst of cheering from the assembled company.
An Allegro adumbrating the all-important minor thirds (compare ex 7) alternates with a Lento, graphically illustrative of the swaying movements of the elephant as it resumes its journey. The Kelly theme proper has been left so far behind by this stage in the argument that it is a shock to hear two whole bars of it in the bass during the latter, followed by a snatch of ex 3.
Then the beast departs, tramping through puddles and sending stallholders and public alike scampering for shelter. As the figuration which a few bars earlier accompanied Kelly is augmented in the orchestra, the keeper, once again yelling ‘Make way!’, disappears with his charge, the first six notes of Kelly stutter impatiently as an onstinsto in the bass, and the onlookers offer their assorted impressions, in which wonder is mingled with annoyance, ‘How silly yet splendid’, as one of them puts it.
NL64 revised / © Adrian Ure 1999
Newsletter, NL 64, 1999