Part 4 : Gentry : Prologue, scene 1 (3) - Adrian Ure Apologies for the absence of music examples - these will be added as soon as possible - JRM
- There is too much of ‘Smile and look happy’
- I don’t know, it seems as though it is part of the show.
The Old Clothes Seller lets a photographer take a picture of four ladies and gentlemen in front of his stall, providing he is included in it. After several misadventures this is accomplished.
As most of the company heads offstage (presumably in pursuit of the elephant), the stallholders voice their thoughts on the scene they have witnessed - not ‘very strange’, says the Fruit Seller, ‘only a bit mad‘. Their bewilderment is our bewilderment. Just now we have no time to ponder, for the photographer has entered trailing the first notes of ex 5 (picked up from the previous bars) behind him.
An ‘Artist’ Brian calls him, reflecting the glory which in those days was accorded to photography: a ‘queer man’, looking like ‘the Dollmaker in La Poupée’. This is a reference either to Adolphe Adam’s one-act opera La Poupée de Nuremberg (1852), well known to Brian as he had been present at many rehearsals of it in his days in the Midlands 1, or to La Poupée, an operetta by Edmond Audran which in 1897 appeared in London in an English translation.
Both are based on Hoffmann’s Coppélia story (in the latter’s case very loosely indeed), a characteristic Romantic exploration of the conflicts and points of contact between illusion and reality 2. There is no point in being more specific, since neither the plots nor the music bear any relation to The Tigers. The mention of La Poupée is probably only a guide to the producer; a not so helpful guide now, since both pieces have been out of the repertoire for decades!
The tempo settles to Lento più in response to a more relaxed atmosphere on stage, and the outline of ex 5 is again heard distinctly in the bass in Gb, confounding the Db towards which the preceding chromatic scale seemed to be sinking. Its first four bars with the rhythm ‘smoothed out’ are given three times, seemingly in Gb, C and F, but the accompanying harmonies are characterised by a restless chromaticism that avoids commitment to any key. D minor is eventually reached, but proves to be yet another base camp from which further explorations are launched immediately.
Repose has meanwhile given way to frenetic discussion. The Old Clothes Seller is placed behind the photographer’s party, the stallholders comment amusedly, the two gentlemen in the group are sullen, and the ladies become unwilling recipients of the Clothes Seller’s amorous attention.
There is something funny happening everywhere, regardless of which of the nine simultaneous vocal lines one concentrates on. Brian expects too much of his audience! Yet most of the humour both in this episode and in the previous one with the policemen has a strong visual content, and so is not completely lost. In its own terms, the hullabaloo here and elsewhere in the scene conveys the noise and bustle of a fair every bit as effectively as Petrushka does: how better to simulate this than to be utterly realistic and have everyone saying different things at the same time — the photographer arranging his subjects, the gentlemen discussing him and the ladies berating the strange man behind them?
The music reflects these developments. ‘Kelly’ now never progresses beyond its first bar, even this becoming subject to further distortions until all that remains is a semitonal descent and back again. Meanwhile harmonic tension is increased by a steady and all-pervading chromatic ascent. The arrival on the scene of ex 5(d) in various manifestations, including even [descending phrase, B-A-G-F#-E-E, to be added] occasions a more rapid turning of the screw, until the music collapses on to E major; whereupon, in an appropriate comment on the absurdity of human passions, the Old Clothes Man whips off his hat, exclaiming ‘Ah! my heart is bleeding for you my dearie’, and his toupée falls, exposing his baldness. It is entirely right that this should be set to the purplest passage in the entire opera (again dependent on chromatically ascending triads, and those a third apart).
We might observe that all this is peculiarly apt. In a world where dressing up and disguise amount to an obsession, how fitting that the catalyst for developments should be an Old Clothes Seller, and that he should precipitate the latest comic crisis by exposing himself as he really is. But this seems a solemn response to what is, after all, a moment of pure slapstick, which epitomises the music hall and silent comedy leanings of the entire scene. Like its best exemplars, what appears at first as impishness for the sake of it, a kind of amoral mischief-making, is open to a variety of interpretations. Certainly the Clothes Seller seems all too aware of what motivates him, for all that he seems to live from moment to moment. As he roguishly observes afterwards, ‘I don’t think it can give pleasure - not to everyone’.
[Ex 8 to be added]
Derivatives of ex 5 reflect the photographer’s agitation as he emerges from his cloth. Another version of the ‘Kelly’ theme asserts itself in the bass, framed by augmented-triad broken chord patterns. Ex 8 (bass line), whose whining, fussy nature suits the photographer perfectly, accompanies another of his expostulations, with one small and effective difference; the treble figuration in the fourth bar (unquoted) is lifted a semitone. Further figures emerge, among them this one (fig 40,10):
[ex to be added]
Harmonically and melodically, thirrds have again come to the fore. Brian creates false relations by maintaining the interval of a major third between the parts (except at x). Moreover, each half-bar of quavers adumbrates a minor third in both registers, again excepting one case. The development of ex 5(d) heard before the toupée episode returns. There is also an apt reminiscence of that episode itself, when the photographer says ‘It is unfortunate that we have wasted time through such silly nonsense’. Twice an augmented-triad broken chord pattern recalls both the previous one and ex 1(a). Both appearances, together with yet another version of ex 5(a), feature dotted minims moving chromatically and by minor thirds.
Far-fetched, you may say; and far-fetched much of what I have just written perhaps is. The difficulty is that these variations, like Cubist art, examine their theme from every possible facet and prise it apart until nothing remains but a few familiar shapes - one of which is ex 5(a).
This has gradually been regaining its original contours and rhythm, so it is not surprising when, as an accompaniment to the eventual taking of the photograph, its first four bars steel in for the last time.
Enter the wanted man, pursued by the crowd, which eagerly purchases costumes for the coming carnival. The Fugitive selects the Pantalon costume. The crowd surrounds and conceals him as the Crier bursts in. Curtain.
With fig 50 we come to what may be termed the Finale of the set of variations, insofar as it has the characteristics usually displayed in such a situation — an increase in tempo and virtuosic brilliance, and a return of the theme itself (mentioned above) plus one or two of the previous variations. It is true that the opening E major, having been touched on briefly here, does not reappear until the very end, and that more by sleight of hand than anything else. The beginning of this ‘Finale’ does not correspond precisely with the departure of the photographer and his party. There is a similar dovetailing of the stage action a few bars later, as the Young Man’s panicky entrance overlays the Clothes Seller’s final comment about the previous episode.
[ex 9 to be added]
[ex 9b to be added]
Ex 9(a), comprising two semitones separated by a minor third, gains importance later as orchestral accompaniment to a dissonant antiphonal passage (ex 9b), combined with another figure using the salient intervals of thirds (major and minor) and semitone (cf ex 2(a)). A reprise of ex 7 shadows the wanted man’s entrance, a naive enough device to inform the audience that this is indeed the missing person described by Columbine at the tune’s original appearance. The order of events is: ex 9, ex 7, ex 9, ex 7 (mp against nine forte vocal lines, and incorporating scraps of ex 5), ex 9b. There are three further developments which I need not quote, all of them intimately bound up with the salient intervals. The sudden switches between these mirror the confusion and turmoil on stage. The last of them is underpinned by jagged reminders of ex 5.
With its concealment of the young man, the previously equivocal position of the crowd becomes clearer. It is siding with the fugitive, against authority. Its defiance is stressed in a passage (ex 10) that affirms the relationship between ex 5 and ex 3(a), bringing into play all the complex subliminal associations of both.
[ex 10 to be added]
Three world-bestriding steps take the music to E major, the home key(!) (with added sixths and seconds in the voices), emphasised on timpani and closing with a tutti chord.
Whatever one’s thoughts about the rest of the opera, Prologue Scene I is a fascinating, closely argued piece of theatre. This is partly a matter of structure, though the pervasive presence of key dramatic themes, such as the music-hall reminiscences (the actions, conversation and gestures of the costers and policemen, the ‘Kelly’ song, the false hair routine), has much to do with it.
As will by now be apparent, the musical texture throughout is genuinely symphonic. Short, pregnant figures are developed in a continual process of change and organic growth. Therein lies the danger of isolating these figures; any derivative one can find is likely to be demonstrable as such only by tracing backwards through previous events. And the plasticity of Brian’s treatment of rhythm and interval frequently means (as in the variations) that it is impossible to state a definitive ‘source’ for every scrap of material, however conscious one is of the processes involved.
An examination of the dramatic structure produces some interesting results. It would be most convenient to show this as a diagram. It will be seen that the scene falls into three sections flanked by short episodes:
Bill Poster Henry’s revelation.
(most often C/F/G but with references to E/A and remoter keys for dramatic emphasis) Entry of Policemen and search
(starts in E but rapidly fragments) Photographer and party
(various keys - E and C are milestones)
(mainly centred on E, with C as subsidiary) Wanted Man and his pursuit
(starts and ends on E, various keys between)
Section 1 Section 2 Section 3
Each section or episode contains a fresh set of characters, and ends with the entry of a character or characters, dei ex machina who initiate, not a development of the action, but a change of direction into a new field of action, and thus a freedom from the impasse in which the drama finds itself — Bill Poster, Policemen, Photographer, Wanted Man, Crier again.
There is in fact little dramatic development to speak of. The ‘plot’ of theme first 20 minutes can be summed up in three sentences — ‘War is declared. A photograph is taken. The authorities fail to apprehend a wanted man.’ But this seemingly sunny sequence gains a nightmarish quality from just that narrative poverty, that feeling of running around in circles, together with the sense of frustration Brian induces by stopping each section and changing direction at an unexpected point.
In this whole design, as well as with regard to the smaller details, the music is integrated with the drama. Each section is subtly distinguished from what precedes it - section 1 by new musical figures and a switch from quadruple into triple time, section 2 by a return to common time (initially), the introduction of ‘Kelly’ and the absence of voices throughout the first stretch, section 3 by a slower pulse, comparative lack of musical activity and greater lushness of texture. An imbalance might be perceived to exist, from a casual glance at the diagram, because of the fact that the variations last somewhat longer than half the scene, but in practice, as has been indicated, they merely extend what has already been begun.
There is a good reason for the variations covering their allotted span. The final episode continues the process started by the entry of the policemen. Although the Crier has gone, the theme groaning away throughout the farce with the photographer reminds the audience that the search is by no means over; there is an uneasy reminder of events in the background beneath the manic goings-on in the foreground. Moreover, the photographer’s constantly thwarted desire to take a picture reflects a little the persistent attempts to trace the wanted man. That the artist succeeds at all in his purpose seems incidental, given that which has preceded his accomplishment. But he does succeed; there is, however briefly, the promise of an ordered universe.
In the first section there is a similar frustration, in the costers’ attempts to discern the mysterious words on the poster. This introduces a crucial theme of the work — the concept of war, and human reaction to it. (In The Tigers it remains a concept, unsustained by any kind of reality.) But it is immediately placed in ironic parentheses - viz, the actual response to the news of this war (the antithesis of what we have been led to expect) and first, in a trivialisation nearer the level of these people’s understanding, the animals’ quarrel.
The section is the more effective for being placed at the beginning. Its implications provide a disturbing undertow to the situations that follow, and are felt in the music although the characters do nor heed them. Throughout it all various individuals come and go — only the stallholders remain constant — pursuing their vain purposes like figures from a dream.
The agent of this recurrent frustration of purpose is invariably that stock figure, the Common Man, whose object is to deflate the pomposity and posturing of the representatives of authority (in the scene, the policemen, crier and photographer). Thus in scene 1 the stallholders lead the policemen astray and provide a comic ‘Greek chorus’, while the Old Clothes Seller makes the photographer look silly, and the entire crowd acts in concert to prevent the fugitive’s arrest.
NL66 revised / © Adrian Ure 1999
Newsletter, NL 66, 1999