Part 6 : The seeds of chaos : Act 1, scene 1 - Adrian Ure Apologies for the absence of music examples - these will be added as soon as possible - JRM
- ‘What strange sounds.’
- ‘What do they portend?’
On an unlocalised street, passers-by are variously excited and amused by the sound of a military march.
The Prologue lasts about three quarters of an hour. It is followed by one of the shortest First Acts in existence: a mere 13 minutes or so 1. Assuming there are two intervals in the whole opera —since Act 1 is too short to stand alone — the producer is confronted by the problem of where the first one should be situated. He may place it after Act 1, as was done in the Radio 3 broadcast of 3 May 1983, and sustain the disadvantage of confronting the audience, in the few minutes before the break, with an entirely fresh set of characters and a narrative seemingly divorced from what precedes it. The alternative is to draw the line immediately after the Prologue. This approach also has a drawback. The semitonal ascent from E to F major between Scenes 1 and 2 of the Prologue is balanced by a descent from C# to C major between the Prologue and Act 1, the effect of which is negated if an interval is interposed.
The first sounds we hear are of the distant boom of a drum and horn calls which seem to cast a backward glance in Kelly’s direction (Ex 21). Figs (a) and (c) are to attain great significance as the scene develops. Both are clearly delineated: (a) exploits the intervals of major third and major sixth; (c) concentrates on major second and perfect fifth. My annotations give some idea of the complex way in which these figures are generated. Other notable features of Ex 2l are the displaced accents at the first appearance of (c), the semiquaver tattoo in bar 7, and the use of one note of a chord as a pivot with which to lurch into another key. Brian employs the trick frequently during this scene: in this case the two ‘foreign’ keys, Eb and A, are equidistant from the principal key, C.
Ex 21 to be added
Since the start of the Act various groups of people have been crossing the stage. The first consists of six ‘elderly’ clergymen ‘with grey beards [who] vary in size’. Their improbably simultaneous appearance gives rise to one of those characteristic momentary lurches into an unrelated key (Ex 22). Occurring amidst a passage of bland tonic-and-dominant, it slyly subverts the clergymen’s self-satisfaction.
Exx 22 and 23 to be added
A tucket breaks in, played by ‘on stage’ trumpets. (The direction probably serves merely to distinguish them from those in the orchestra pit. It would make more sense to place the trumpets some distance off stage.) Another brief statement of Ex 21(b) heralds the entrance of two dudes. These are represented by contraltos, and could qualify as travesti roles (although in the broadcast the ‘dudes’ were men singing falsetto). Bassoons underpin the fops’ remarks with Ex. 22(a). This functions as a unifying figure: it shadows the three main groups of characters, offering comments on their points of view. It is increasingly distorted, but even when it has ceased to be quoted directly, its influence is felt, far into Scene 2, with the recurrent martial rhythm semiquaver-semiquaver-quaver of its first three notes.
So far the music seems to be following a fairly wellworn path, with a jaunty march, mainly in C major, rising towards a predictable climax. There are two obstacles to this nice conventional plan, whose impact is temporary but whose effect on the course of the scene is lasting.
The first involves an ‘Italian Organ Grinder’ (with Monkey) 3 whose instrument produces a hair-raising variation of Ex 22(a) in D major, with elements of B minor and C major in the accompaniment. No sooner has he been hustled off by yet another constable than three ladies enter. The music changes to 3/4 and an uneasy C# minor with a mediant pedal, and a harp musing on Ex 21(c’). This lasts for six bars before snapping back to attention with the observation by one of the ladies, ‘There is merriment somewhere’.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this scene is the manner in which various degrees of satire and irony interact with one another. On the first and most basic level, the appearance of the three featured groups is obviously intended to excite ridicule. Thus the absurdity of the six grey-bearded clergymen (admittedly likelier in Brian’s time than in ours) 2, and the fact that both dudes and ladies are described as ‘overdressed’. Brian then invites his audience to look behind these superficialities and examine his characters’ reactions to the sound of ‘soldiers marching’. Those of the clergymen are, indeed, just as one would expect: they are ‘in rapture’, stumbling over each other with excitement (see Ex 22).
The dudes’ perceptions are more generalised, their reaction less predictable. While thinking the ‘noise’ not ‘really necessary’, it is apparently an occasion for mirth: both they and the ladies depart laughing. But at least they are prepared to ‘see what it all can mean’. The organ grinder, on the other hand, is neutral, even ambiguous (we hardly see his face). His quotation of Ex 22(a) — actually more in the nature of so allusion — may be taken to express solidarity with the other characters, yet his music is excruciating, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that it exists at the very least to deflate and debunk the pomp and ceremony which the rest find so attractive. Either that, or maybe something more sinister — an ugly premonition of the realities behind the festive façade. If this were the case, it would furnish an additional reason for the policeman, as a representative of the Establishment, to get him off the scene quickly! But perhaps this is being too fanciful.
There are no such doubts about what the ladies have to say. The first sings ‘mysteriously’. The ‘noise’ has become ‘strange sounds’, and the question is now what they ‘portend’ (= ‘foreshow, foreshadow, as an omen’ - Concise Oxford Dictionary). In the foreground, superficial attitudes remain — there is indeed ‘merriment somewhere’, and the ladies even depart to the sound of music first cousin to that used at the elephant’s exit in Prologue Scene 1 (cf fig 103 plus 4 bars with fig 41,2): in the background, these six mysterious bars disturb the music’s flow enough to suggest worlds deeper than these characters can conceive.
The tonality, as a result of these interruptions, has lost momentum, which is not to be regained until a crucial point in Scene 2. The music itself is more jagged than formerly. A chromatically ascending base figure in fourths, evidently derived from Ex 21(c’), attains prominence in the company of a chromatically descending treble (Ex 22B). This bass figure was first heard announcing the Organ Grinder’s appearance (fig 101,2), along with the ‘martial rhythm’, which is itself now joined by another more urgent one (Ex 23).
The street fills with people of all classes, on their way to see what is afoot. Anticipation is heightened by a wordless chorus behind the scenes, suggesting a considerable presence in the vicinity. Ex 21(c) appears in the bass, combined with various derivatives of that figure, and the action passes without a break into Scene 2.
NL73 / © Adrian Ure 1987
Timings are based on the BBC broadcast. ↩︎
Details supplied in the cast list which prefaces the vocal score. ↩︎
The published vocal score states ‘3 Clergymen’ here. Since there is no fresh indication when they break into five-part harmony, I think a misprint for ‘6 Clergymen’ can be assumed reasonably safely. ↩︎
Newsletter, NL 73, 1987