Music And Spells: Borrowing Glamour From Classical Music, Part 3
Part 1 of this series of three posts suggested that the qualities of “glamour,” “atmosphere,” and “immediacy” are important to using classical music successfully in choreography or as film music. Part 2 pointed out that the timbre (character and tone color) of the instruments and voices used in the performance of a piece of music are crucial to the way the music feels.
Another important consideration is whether the music’s nature leaves room for extramusical information. Some abstract pieces of music seem to unfold in a process of “developing,” of “becoming” a complete work in the future. Trying to following this process can absorb your attention, leaving little room for stage actions or visual images. In contrast, musical works that seem to live more in the present moment are generally preferable in the theater.
Even if not written for the theater, such music may sometimes have extramusical associations such as text or titles. I’ll illustrate this by focusing on a few musical works that have fairy-tale associations. Maurice Ravel composed masterfully both for piano and for orchestra. The final section of his Mother Goose Suite is titled “The Fairy Garden,” the title itself suggesting “atmosphere.” If you compare the beginning of the original four-hand piano version to his transcription of the same music for orchestra, it’s clear that the different colors make the atmosphere of each feel quite different.
The piano version is lovely, and solo piano music has been used effectively for both ballet and films. But comparing the opening measures, I don’t feel that the piano’s percussive nature evokes the delicacy of a fairy garden in the same way as does the soft sustained bowing of the strings.
Music written with some theatrical flare tends to make more noticeable use of orchestral color. As noted in part 1, Elizabeth Sawyer felt that Weber’s music generally has “atmosphere,” and that Brahms’ music does not. This stems in part from Weber’s concern with details of color. To cite one example, Weber specifies more string section color effects in the first three minutes of the Overture to his opera Oberon (fairies again) than you are likely to find in an entire Brahms symphony. Many of these color details are subtle, but concern with subtleties is crucial to “glamour.” Brahms didn’t write for the theater, and he seems to have had little interest in the kind of “glamorous,” “atmospheric” coloring that can make such a immediate and memorable impression in the theater.
So, given an orchestra’s tremendous range of color possibilities, using colors theatrically is one way to add glamour and atmosphere. Doing so relates to the notion of glamour as something beyond the ordinary. In essence, you can use orchestral colors to present music in a straightforward, relatively “neutral” way, or you can use them to present music in a way that is more striking, more “glamorous.”
If we personify this, we can imagine theater music as tending to wear glamorous makeup, rather than no or minimal makeup. (Or we could contrast glamorous clothing versus plain clothing.) Remarks of this kind are controversial because some composers contend that the sound of their music is always intrinsic, not something that can be considered as “coloring” or “apparel.” Stravinsky, who achieved international fame with ballet scores and whose orchestration is always striking, once praised Beethoven’s instrumentation for its “sobriety,” saying Beethoven’s orchestration is never “apparel,” and thus “never strikes one.” (Stravinsky’s remarks suggest an ambivalence about noticeable artfulness that I have written about as a general artistic issue elsewhere.)
The Dutch site GirlScene has posted images of models with and without makeup, generating controversy there and at Feminine Beauty. Regardless of what you think of the photographs, they demonstrate that each model’s underlying bone structure and facial features remain the same, whether wearing makeup or not. So too, all of our musical examples have underlying melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structures that remain the same, regardless of the colors used to present them. Nonetheless, it is surprising how much surface coloring influences our impressions (See Virginia Postrel’s images of Donatello’s David with and without gilded hair.)
The purpose of this series of posts has been to discuss some of the qualities that make some music more “glamorous” and “atmospheric,” and thus suitable for use in the theater. Stated bluntly, in the theater “neutral” orchestration tends to fall flat. The theater is no more “the real world” than fashion photo shoots are. Both worlds deal in illusions. People come to the theater hoping to somehow be enchanted, hoping to be transported to somewhere less ordinary, and “glamorous” sounds can help create that spell.
Puccini was a master of atmospheric scoring, and his tenor aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot has been used in at least 15 movies, frequently at an emotional high point in the movie that consists only of action. In the opera the aria is sung at night, and the whole town has been ordered to stay awake (no one sleeps, nessun dorma) to try to discover the name of the Prince who has solved the Princess’s riddle. In addition to highly atmospheric scoring in the strings and the rest of the orchestra, we also hear the ethereal effect of an offstage chorus (usually absent from concert performances). In addition, Puccini writes for the tenor voice with consummate skill, including knowing which vowel sounds work best for high notes. (Don't get confused by the subtitles: the subtitles in this video are in Spanish, but he’s singing in Italian.)
When this aria is used in films, the theatrical device is often to have some character in the film be listening to the aria. This device is used in The Sum of All Fears. In a scene in which the American president and Soviet chairman sign a new peace accord, various conspirators who tried to bring about nuclear war are assassinated. The first of these conspirators is listening to the aria. The applause at the end of the aria seems to serve dual purposes.
In all cases where I have heard this aria used in films, the emotional intensity of the music helps make the film scene seem to have great emotional significance. Remarkably, in The Witches of Eastwick the aria occurs during a joyous scene, and in The Killing Fields during an introspective scene. Thus it is clearly the aria’s level of emotional intensity that interests film makers (more than a specific emotional quality). Intensity, plus the music’s ability to cast a unforgettable spell.