Part 5 : Masks : Prologue, scene 2 - Adrian Ure Apologies for the absence of music examples - these will be added as soon as possible - JRM
Tell me what it is you mean by this nonsense about love?
Dancers appear, with Pantalon and Columbine leading the carnival revels, which a policeman ends. Pantalon persuades Columbine to elope with him.
The setting is the same as that of scene 1, viewed from a slightly different perspective. (The effect is that of eavesdropping on a series of events.) In other respects the contrast is striking; from day to night, from a full to an empty stage, from an F major blaze of defiance to furtive scrabblings in F major (ex 11).
Ex 11 to be added
This is related to ex 1(a), with the octave and fifth in that figure reduced to a fifth and third. Further compression produces ex 12 (fig 57, 1).
Ex 12 to be added
This in its turn is akin to ex 6: so it is musically logical enough that ex 6 itself should return complete, in its original tempo, over a drone bass (ex l(a) reduced to first principles).
Its dramatic relevance here is harder to grasp. At its original appearance the stallholders were mocking the policeman, displaying dolls and pairs of trousers in answer to their enquiries (see Investigating The Tigers (3)).
I believe this has a bearing on the present episode, which is manifestly a celebration of life, a joyous release from the repressive forces of authority which have haunted scene 1. This is especially true of Pantalon, who spent scene 1 largely in hiding, trying to evade capture by those forces, but will hog the limelight for the whole of scene 2. It is his disguise, his carnival costume, which enables him to do this, as it enables everyone on stage to escape from mundane reality into a fantasy world. (Given the unrealistic nature of opera — and in particular this opera — we may reflect on the paradox of this situation.)
The stallholders have a significant part to play in this, especially the Old Clothes Seller, who produced enormous trousers — pantaloons, maybe! — when the constables appeared. The Rhine Maidens have their gold ripped from them at the end of scene 1, and from then on anything can happen.
In a less literal sense, disguise can be used to hide the personality and emotions, prevent others knowing one’s true character, and even to delude oneself. Thus it has both positive and negative connotations.
We shall find these concerns echoed throughout the opera. ‘Anti-war’ it may be: more positively it is a ‘celebration of life’, and a protest against the mechanistic exercise of rigid bureaucracy. (This is most obviously seen in act 1, the Green pastures in act 2, and the very end of act 3.) This protest takes the form of a continual evasion of authority and ultimately (in view of the seriousness of the war which is supposedly being waged in the background) a retrogression, an escape to irresponsibility. Finally, it is noticeable that none of the characters is presented ‘in the round’. They never reveal any inner depths. In fact they act not as they are but as they wish others to see them.
In this light Brian’s use of the carnival setting seems brilliantly apt. The carnival outlines, neatly and objectively. points which will be developed later in the work. The music’s high degree of structural organization enables it to stand independently of the visual image, yet it is also a vivid realisation of Brian’s idea that the increasing speed of the merry-go-round in the background should eventually create the illusion of galloping horses.
Ex 13 to be added
Ex 11 returns: (a) is given seven times in succession — more effort expended in getting nowhere. The sequel (ex 13) provides several offshoots. Ideas glint out of the texture in bewildering succession, many of them bizarrely scored (at one point a bassoon is in canon with a piccolo), but they are merely using the basic vocabulary of ex l(a) and exx 11-13 in new ways. Three examples of this are shown in exx 14-16.
Exx 14-16 to be added
A second section, opening with a variation of ex 6 (fig 68, 3), adopts a considerably slower tempo, but it proves to be the slowness of a juggernaut. (In fact what is involved is a change of pulse, from dotted semiquaver+demisemiquaver to dotted quaver+semiquaver, rather than a decrease in speed — the marking is Vivace). Ghostly transformations of previous passages crop up — the elephant’s entrance, and (a most impressive moment) the ‘wig’ episode. The point being made seems to be that Wild horsemen should be experienced not in isolation, but as a continuation of the spirit of scene 1.
Repeated hammerings at ex 15, which bears a more malignant aspect than anything else heard yet, come to dominate the proceedings. The basic rhythm of the movement now shifts gradually from dotted quaver+semiquaver to a triplet, dotted quaver+semiquaver+quaver, and in that rhythm ex 15 imposes itself. An unmistakable allusion to The ride of the Valkyries seems clichéd nowadays, but once again there is nothing arbitrary about Brian’s use of it: the harmonic and rhythmic context, and the pervading atmosphere of the music, has prepared for its appearance, has made it indeed almost inevitable.
By this point we must deny the adequacy of ‘a celebration of life’ as a descriptive tag for Wild horsemen, if we have not already questioned it. The reference to Walkürenritt recalls the concept of war, expressed in a timeless, heroic image — the Valkyrie maids transporting dead heroes on horseback to Valhalla and to immortality. Unfortunately these examples are literally more down-to-earth, being merry-go-round horses. This distinctly double-edged approach to Wagner is characteristic of the work as a whole, its many allusions to that composer point up the fact that in Wagnerian terms the soldier ‘heroes’ are non-starters!
Regrettably Brian’s directions do not make it clear whether he intends the illusion of galloping horses to be complete (effecting a transition from carnival to carnage), or means the merry-go-round trappings to remain (undercutting Wagner parodistically). Certainly there is nothing comic about the music, which has moved into ‘deeper and darker waters’. This is an example of the dichotomy, much commented on, between what we see on stage (the ‘foreground’) and what we hear in the orchestra (the ‘background’). (A radio performance, however good, conveys even less the idea of this opera than it does with most.) Anyway, the juxtaposition of carnival celebrations and these images of war strikes a more tragic note than has been sounded hitherto.
The French sixth on to which Wild horsemen had collapsed resolves to D major — but the weight of the full orchestra is replaced by the plangency of a harp in its highest register, and the mundane sound of a police bell. This punctures the mood as effectively as Henry’s yawn (Prologue scene 1).
Ex to be added
(The caesura after ‘time’ gives a grim, mocking emphasis to the policeman’s words. Glancingly, it reminds me of a similar effect from the publican’s interjections, ‘Hurry up please its time’ in Eliot’s The waste land (1922).)
One of the most puzzling aspects of this work is the radical shift in vocal stylization within the Prologue. The declamation here is far from the realistic style of the opening of scene 1. As Mike Smith has said, here and elsewhere in the opera is a deliberately anti-realistic word-setting run riot 2. It is not my intention to examine Brian’s declamation, but it is something to which attention must be drawn. How is Brian going to sustain a coherent form over long stretches when for much of the time vocal and orchestral music alike is disjointed and seemingly arbitrary?
A close examination of the melodic shapes Brian uses enables us to recognize the organic nature of much of the musical development. For example, the bass patterns…. at fig 78,3 echo the constable’s vocal line three bars earlier (an amusing piece of characterisation):
Ex to be added
Much of the policeman’s music is centred around F, but twice E major confronts C as he harries a coster. The ‘forces of life’ figures (exx 12 and 15) continue to assert themselves, and the dotted quaver+semiquaver rhythm is also used to caricature the constable’s steady plod (ex 17).
Ex 17 to be added
His departure signals a gradual relinquishment of F major. A warm upsurge of melody accompanies Pantalon and Columbine across the stage. They are alone, but there is some obstacle: a fluttery, coquettish series of scraps in the treble in A minor, graduating to E minor, is held against an F major bass which speaks of darker things (fig 81, 4). Again ex 12 is gently insistent — this time in E interspersed with a moment of hesitation — C major — in an inversion of the earlier process. A flurry of activity, Allegro molto, announces the fact that the pair are about to get down to business (ex 18).
Ex 18 to be added
The following section is ‘difficult’ — as are most of the extended solos end duets in the opera — in that it appears at first to be a series of disconnected fragments, on to which a spurious unity has been foisted by occasional note-for-note repetitions of certain passages. I hope to show the opposite: that we are dealing with a carefully crafted mosaic, in which every orchestral motif has its place in expounding to the audience the thoughts and emotions of this couple, and there are sound musical and/or dramatic reasons for the repetitions. It may be profitable to illustrate the more striking of these passages — as well as ex 18 we have ex 19 and the delicate ex 20.
Exx 19 and 20 to be added
Ex 18, after some indecision concerning what key it is supposed to be in, plumps temporarily for D. However, Columbine’s reply to Pantalon’s earnest ‘Do you love me?’ is all wrong (‘I try so hard’), and once more the tonality is thrown off-centre. Pantalon tries sarcasm, ex 19 suggesting his annoyance. He offers her his arms, but she is ‘tired of arms and faces. I want life!’ With the last word the key of C# is reached, a key touched on before:
Ex to be added
Thus there is some connection in her mind between ‘love’ and ‘life’, but these characters are in a ‘muddle’, as Forster would have said, and neither understands the other’s use of these terms — or they affect not to. (For Pantalon, ‘love’ is evidently an affair of ‘arms and faces’.)
The preliminary sparring over, a silent bar precedes Pantalon’s ironic riposte, outlining the kind of ‘life’ that Columbine leads — very much the coster’s world (fig 86). Ex 20 provides the main musical interest — (a) having been foreshadowed two bars earlier, and having much the some negative, repressive connotation earlier associated with the policeman. Note also the reappearance of ex 1(a), which keeps popping up throughout the duet.
‘Is not that life for you!’ exclaims Pantalon — though of course it isn’t. We are no further forward; the music rocks between D and C, as at the beginning of the duet (fig 82, 9). C# major is glimpsed briefly, only to be quashed by the F minor of failure.
Pantalon, having confirmed Columbine’s dissatisfaction with the present dispensation, is able to dig deeper, with two rather leading questions! This is a third section (Allegro moderato fig 87, 6) Its mischievous dotted quaver+semi-quaver+quaver rhythms overlay a Bb pedal, and the coloration soon becomes minor (C#’s relative minor). Where are Columbine’s thoughts if they are not with her ‘gallant husband’, Pantalon wants to know. She rejects his advances, but during a pregnant two bar pause in the vocal line the orchestra breathes a figure:
Ex to be added
This relates directly to Columbine’s ‘I want life!’ and therefore suggests the Possibility of Escape. It sounds again as Pantalon tries to persuade his companion to come with him. Then he becomes petulant, his voice describing the descending chromatic fragment of ex 20(a), followed by a recurrence of ex 19.
Columbine’s refusal is coupled with insistent references to exx 12 and 11, and rushing chromatic passage—work (fig 90, 5) so that we know what her true desires are. The tonality from now on tends to centre around E — on the opposite side of C# from the preceding Bb.
Abruptly Pantalon begins denouncing the obstacle to his happiness in grossly bathetic terms (‘I’ll hit him with a carrot’). This fourth section — Allegretto a leggiero, fig 91, 4 — is weirdly harmonised and scored. Wailing chromatic descents and a grotesque ex 1(a) complement the ridiculousness of Pantalon’s Curse.
Columbine bursts out laughing and Pantalon stops, bewildered as ex 18 sounds once again in the orchestra. This time there is no pause on D major; the music veers away on a crazy patchwork of keys. In this final section (fig 93) there is no hint of formal recapitulation, but several of the figures are generically similar to those in the first section. With seeming abruptness Columbine capitulates. The music, having worked round to E minor, screws itself up chromatically over an ostinato consisting of ex 1(a), and Pantalon sings ‘There is no life without hate or love. Some thrive on hate. Our life is love.’ - a gnomic, somewhat Blakean sentiment which, as well as attempting to sort out the earlier love/life confusion for Columbine, relates to what happens elsewhere in the opera. Meanwhile the music drops gently on to G# minor (ex 20(a)), in a literal resolution of the earlier negative emotions, and the Possibility of Escape is sung triumphantly over exx 20 and 19. The last chord — which the protagonists reach in unison — is C# major, associated with ‘life’ and ‘love’.
This is all very well, but what are life and love to these commedia dell’ arte figures? It could well be assumed, following upon the symbolism which I earlier suggested attaches to Wild horsemen, that Brian would wish to engage the interest and concern of the audience in these lovers, who have played out their courtship in the face of a nightmare vision of war and in defiance of it. (‘Some thrive on hate. Our life is love.’) — as well as being the ringleaders of the revolt against oppressive authority. Yet how can our sympathy be solicited by two masks?
Let us stop a moment and consider the situation. Pantalon has been on the run from the law, and Columbine has either informed the police of his whereabouts, or tried to mislead them, depending on one’s interpretation of her first appearance: I think the use to which Brian later puts ex 7 favours the former. She is unlikely to interfere thus in matters over which she has no concern, besides, Pantalon knows sufficient of her background to pass cheeky remarks about it.
The whole tenor of their conversation suggests that they know each other well. It seems reasonable to infer that Columbine does care enough about Pantalon to try returning him to whatever he calls ‘home’, but is eventually persuaded that his ideal ‘life’ and hers coincide, and decides to elope with him. That being so. why do they address each other as ‘Pantalon’ and ‘Columbine’? Why is their entire conversation couched in such artificial language? (Why, incidentally, has Pantalon evolved from baritone to tenor between Scenes 1 and 2, with a corresponding change of clef? There is no verbal indication of a change in actual vocal timbre, which might suggest another parodic Wagner reference, also involving disguise, namely Siegfried’s wooing of Brunnhilde while in the character of Gunther, in Götterdämmerung.)
My original judgement, that the scene is ‘affectionately presented caricature’ does not go far enough to explain this 3. One tentative conclusion is that for some reason there are details in the scene which Brian cannot bring to light without distancing himself and us from the protagonists. Another is that there is some overriding symbolism, connected with the commedia dell’ arte, which he wishes to put across. If this were so, it would provide another raison d’être for the carnival, since that provided a readymade setting in which the commedia characters could find a place.
Perhaps it will help to think of the lovers in commedia dell’ arte terms. Directly we do so, however, we run into one rather astonishing fact: it was Harlequin who was typically presented as Columbine’s lover, not Pantalon. Pantalon, ‘lean and slippered’, miserly, avaricious, vain old lecher, is occasionally pictured as Columbine’s father or husband 4, but it is difficult to see him wooing her, much less employing the kind of language he uses here, and winning her over.
Far more fitted to this task, surely, is Harlequin, the legendary lover — and excellent dancer — the social rebel, ‘a bird of passage, a vagabond without home or place, and with no parents’!
Why has Brian linked Pantalon and Columbine in this explicitly erotic passage? Influenced by their association in Schumann, was he simply unaware of their status in commedia dell’arte terms? Or did they have some additional symbolic significance for him? We may never be sure of the answer, but a clue to the riddle might be discovered in Scene 1. It could be said that Pantalon is the real subject of the ‘Kelly’ variations, although he does not appear until the final moments. It would be interesting if we could find a parallel between Kelly and Pantalon:
Has anybody here seen Kelly?
K — E — double L — Y
Has anybody here seen Kelly?
Find him if you can!
He’s as bad as old Antonio,
Left me on my ownio.
Has anybody here seen Kelly?
Kelly from the Isle of Man.
The point of this is old Antonio. He appears in an earlier song, ‘Oh!, oh!, Antonio!’. Antonio is an ice-cream vendor (what else?!) who, having succeeded in working his charms on a well-born lady, deserts her for a rival. According to one American source, ‘Has anybody here seen Kelly?’ tells much the same story 7. The copy I have seen does not bear this out, but there may well have been more than one version.
The appearance of the tune is thus a double joke — firstly because Columbine, in trying to trace her male companion, is in the same situation as the woman in the song, secondly because of the reference to the unfaithful Antonio. The music is dropping hints long before we see the young man that the reasons for his disappearance are romantic. There is a third joke: during the love duet it becomes apparent that Columbine is the unfaithful one. The relevance of all this to Brian’s own situation a few years earlier is obvious. Meanwhile, as I say, the mystery of Pantalon/Harlequin awaits a conclusive answer: but I occasionally like to think Brian had sense of humour enough to think of himself as Pantalon.
NL68 / © Adrian Ure 1986
Adrian Ure. MA, dissertation, University of St Andrews, 1984, p 23 ↩︎
Kay Dick. Pierrot, 1961, p 119 ↩︎
Sigmund Spaeth, Read ’em and weep, 1926. ↩︎
Newsletter, NL 68, 1986