intimations of childhood from immortal wagnerian wonderment

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intimations of childhood from immortal wagnerian wonderment

Postby alberich00 » Sat Aug 06, 2011 11:03 am

Dear devotees of the Wagnerheim cult:

I've been recalling some of my earliest impressions of the art of applying music to drama and thought I'd share a few.

I had little access to live drama, and none to opera, up through about my 18th year, so my earliest childhood memories of music, in its relation to drama, were obtained mostly from movies, i.e., film scores.

Strange to say, my earliest memory of a melody is the minuet from "Don Giovanni." I don't recall for sure, but I suspect this was music heard on some children's folk-story album which my parents bought for me. My parents did eventually buy me some of those "intro to classical music" albums, which had the stock, popular excerpts from classical pieces. I loved the Mendelsohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" music, etc. I knew Wagner only through the iconic "Ride of the Valkyries" and the wedding music from "Lohengrin." Neither of these excerpts made a deep impression on me out of context. When I was a teenager my opera-loving uncle gave my parents a recording of "Aida" with Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers, and for a long time I thought the summit of vocal music was the finale of that wonderful work (I still admire it, though "Otello" is now my favorite Verdi). In elementary school, I knew I was made differently from most other children when the majority of my classmates would continue to chatter away while I was spellbound by some Norwegian folk tune being played in music class. From my earliest years this experience (which has been repeated in various forms ad infinitum since then) taught me that my keenest enjoyments would be experienced solo.

My earliest profound experience of the possibilities inherent in music-drama came through exposure, on tv, to six films. The film scores of "The Yearling" (Gregory Peck), "The Good Earth" (Paul Muni, Luise Rainer), "Oliver Twist" (David Lean's version), "A Christmas Carol" (the Alasdair Sim version), "Moby Dick" (John Huston directing, Gregory Peck, again, as Ahab), and "The Wizard of Oz" (don't jump down my throat yet: wait to hear my rather idiosyncratic take on this popular children's film!).

"The Yearling" for me was the ultimate coming of age story on film, with the power (for childlike me) of Greek tragedy, and set to what for me was the most charming and romantically melancholy of film scores, which I only later learned was Herbert Stothart's application of primarily Frederick Delius's music to the drama (for some strange reason he interpolated some of Mendelsohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" music into one scene, which somewhat spoiled the Delius-melancholy-infused atmosphere of the whole). This film seared me. What impression could be lonelier than the forlorn sound of a cello solo as Jody, the child-hero of the story, looked out of the window of his family's cabin in the wilds of 1870's Florida, reflecting on his desperate need for an intimate friend, as a moonlit night was haunted by the sound of a wolf (I hope I'm remembering this correctly). Jody then gets up from his bed and approaches his parents, telling them of his desire for a pet, something with "dependence to it." His long-suffering mother, who has lost all of her prior children to sickness and still-birth, and who, accordingly, is reluctant to be soft and moony with her sole remaining child, who must be strong enough to bear life's cross, tells him (I guess he's about 9 or 10) that such a grownup boy shouldn't be whining over a desire for a play-doll. Gregory Peck gently chides his wife, telling her that he's seen the look of wonderment in their child's eyes as he has wandered out among the natural things, and he asks her to let Jody remain a child a while longer. Her eyes look off in sadness into the distance. A bit later, Jody's dad comes into his bedroom saying that mom has gone off to the graveyard.

Peck tries to explain the mother's harshness to the child. He tells how she lost her children, one after the other, and became bitter. However, in describing the more free and easy life he once enjoyed setting up a farm in the wilderness with his wife, Stothart's score (and I'm not sure in this instance how much is Stothart, and how much Delius) expands briefly to capture with a few brief, poignant orchestral strokes, an entire world that Peck once enjoyed with his happy wife. That lonely solo cello tune which captured Jody's solitude, and this miniature musical vignette capturing the very essence of a once happy life in the wilderness, seemed to me as a child to hold the very mystery of life itself. I can't think of these scenes today for a moment without being stung by the charming chill of my original impression.

I must also mention the searing music Stothart employed (in this case drawn directly from one of Delius's orchestral works) to accompany Ma Baxter looking over the graves of her children. I did not know, could not know, as a child, that this music was written by Delius, either purely as abstract music, or, if Delius had images or drama in mind, consciously or unconsciously, they surely were different from the impression which Stothart was striving for.
As a child, I couldn't conceive that this music could have been written for any purpose other than to illustrate Ma Baxter's regrets over her dead children and fears for Jody. This was quite a lesson, and corresponds with some of Wagner's remarks (to which he only occasionally adhered) that music is independent of life, drama, images. Because it dawned on me later that if music of a certain but more general character could be so powerful when applied to a specific dramatic scenario, how much more would this be the case if music of the greatest persuasiveness were applied by its author to a drama of his own making, a drama, moreover, which had been written under the spell of this musical atmosphere, at least unconsciously, in the first place. Food for thought!

One last example from this magnificent children's (and adult's) film, which, to this day, has for me the archetypal elements of tragedy, i.e., of the hubris of seeking meaning where, perhaps, there is none to be found. Jody and his dad are traipsing through the forest in order to settle a score with former friends who evidently have stolen some of their pigs, and on the way, Peck, the dad, gets struck by a rattlesnake. This is the virtual and also the dramatic centerpiece and midpoint of the film, on which everything turns. The only way Peck can survive is to shoot a female deer he sees in a clearing. He is desperate, and as he cuts his arm with his knife to suck out the venom, he yells for his son to cut out the deer's heart and liver and bring them over so he can use them to absorb the toxin. Then he ambles home, telling his son to hurry to the very home of the Forresters, the former friends who apparently have stolen the pigs the Baxter family (Jody's family) depend on in the winter for meat, in order to get help. Jody notices a fawn looking for its dead mother, but Peck (the father, Penny Baxter) says he can't help it now.

Jody is able to persuade most of the Forresters to run for the only doctor in the area, and to catch up with Peck on horse-back to carry him to his house. The next scene is the sick-room, in which Peck seems near death, and all is silent. Stothart performed phonemenal musical magic with the briefest orchestral passage (again, I don't know if this is Delius, or Stothart, or both) which delineates Peck gradually regaining consciousness, and with a sudden turn of melody, he opens his eyes, to be greeted by his son. To this very day this brief orchestral snippet strikes me as a miracle of compression of many conflicting emotions.

But to follow up on the fawn, which becomes the node of tragedy in the story after Peck is well on the way to recovery, Jody is able to persuade him that, in view of the fact the fawn's mother gave its life that Peck could live, it would be ungrateful not to give the fawn a home, in spite of Ma Baxter's quibbles. The music Stothart set to capture Jody's adventurous visit back to the wilds to retrieve his raison d'etre, initially exuberant with paradisal promise, and then abruptly bleak and unforgiving as Jody spies vultures in the sky, and then elfin and magical as, in spite of the worst appearances, and his initially desperate search for the fawn which seems to have disappeared (again set to wonderfully desperate/passionate music), he spies its tracks, and follows those tracks to the living fawn hidden within the brush, is one of the most thrilling pieces of film story telling I can recall.

I'll have to continue this account later: I plan to post here a curious reflection on each of the films, and film scores, I've referenced above, as time permits.

Well, here I am again, to complete my impression of the musico-dramatic virtues of "The Yearling." As anyone who has read Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's novel, or seen the film version, knows, Jody's pet deer, which he names Flag (a tribute to the white tail which deer flash while running), ultimately becomes a liability as it grows and starts eating the family's cash-crop of tobacco and food crops. Jody successfully passes several severe tests in order to make it possible for the family to keep the pet without suffering further losses, but in the end Flag defeats his best efforts and his father, after a conference with his wife, tells Jody to shoot it. Jody, shotgun in hand, takes it out to the woods, but can't bring himself to shoot it and tries desperately to shoo it away by throwing stones at it and screaming that he doesn't love it anymore, but only so it will save itself by returning to the wilderness from which it came. However, being well domesticated by now and dependent on the Baxter family for food, it follows Jody home. Jody's father tells Jody to wait in a room. I can never forget Jody's negligent meditation on a buzzing wasp hovering in a corner of the cabin, the only sound breaking the silence, when a shot rings out. Ma Baxter has shot the deer but only wounded it, and Pa Baxter yells for Jody to finish the deer off to put it out of its misery. He does so, but in unbearable anguish screams that he hates his parents and runs out into the wilderness to lose himself.

Jody undergoes his grand Wagnerian transformation and initiation into the cruelty of the otherwise beautiful world during his confrontation with himself in the wilderness. He finds himself alone in a miserable swamp at night and clings to a tree crying out for Flag. However, hours later, he cries out for food because he's starving. In a Tristanesque twist, he passes out and falls into what looks like an old Seminole dugout cypress canoe and floats downriver. I must point out here that it absolutely amazed me as a child that the composer of this film score, Stothart/Delius, seemed always to find the precisely characteristic and appropriate musical incarnation for each dramatic situation. There was special music for Jody's despair when clinging to the tree, undergoing a tragic transformation from idealist to realist. and special magical music for his unconscious passage downriver in - if you will - Tristan's coracle, suffering unbearable consciousness of the wound that will never heal (i.e., the incommensurability of the real with the ideal).

Eventually Jody returns home, and Pa Baxter announces that Jody has taken the punishment and become a man, and, when Ma Baxter returns from seeking her son (Pa Baxter was too lame after a plowing accident to leave the house), tells her he's a yearling no longer. Ma Baxter goes into her son's bedroom and clings to him with the desperation of a mother who had almost lost her last and only living child. The final twist of the knife comes when Jody, asleep, dreams of the formerly happy days with his fawn.

I have described this film in such detail because it brings together two things which would later draw me to Wagner, utterly transporting music of great variety which seemed to capture the very soul of each specific moment of the drama, and a coming of age story in which the ideal clashes with the real, and the real wins, just as it does when Siegfried betrays Bruennhilde. This juxtaposition of the sublime and the horrible, which Dostoevsky described as a characteristic of his epileptic episodes, and which is also characteristic of his greatest novels and short stories, has always struck me as Wagner's natural province. This, and the five other films I mentioned above, prepared me in early youth for my initial experience of Wagner's "Ring" at age 18, an experience which has colored my entire life from that time forward.
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