Melodies are time-machines. I can hear a song and instantly I go back in time.
Composers know this. It’s why films often employ compositions we’ve heard before to invoke a whole set of meanings. In Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis accomplishes a series of short flashbacks to instants in historical time pinpointed by the associated song. These discreet little moments are a curious reflection of Forrest himself, as though he lived in the two-dimensional surface of these Polaroid snapshots.
I’m looking forward to seeing Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens in a high definition broadcast this weekend. The opera is understood as an adaptation of Vergil’s Aeneid even if we get very little that’s recognizable from the classical poem. This should scarcely surprise us if we know Berlioz. His Romeo et Juliette employed the orchestra to portray the lovers, using a very indirect dramaturgy. At one point a narrator actually speaks of Shakespeare by name. An opera that names the playwright during the play? Sure, if it’s part cantata, part symphony.
Premier amour, n’êtes vous pas
Plus haut que toute poésie?
Ou ne seriez-vous point, dans notre exil mortel,
Cette poésie elle-même,
Dont Shakespeare lui seul eut le secret suprême
Et qu’il remporta dans le ciel!
Similar odd things happen in the libretto of Troyens, as for instance when Dido stands on her own funeral pyre, predicting that Hannibal will one day (hundreds of years in the future) be a scourge to the Romans (and Aeneas), avenging the North Africans (Dido & Carthage).
Don’t confuse this with a Wagnerian opera. For one thing, it’s full of ballet. I say this ruefully because it’s likely a deal-breaker for the COC. Otherwise Troyens would be an ideal candidate for the COC, being a showpiece for chorus & orchestra. Oh well.
Where Wagner’s operas & music-dramas usually have several themes, Berlioz is much more economical in his assignment of meaning via recurring musical ideas. There is a single melody Berlioz employs as a key to his opera. We hear it several times:
- it appears offstage accompanying the procession bringing the horse into Troy, as Cassandra (a member of Priam’s royal family given the dubious gift of royal prophecy, but cursed because no one ever believes her) expresses her sorrow, disbelief and outrage. As such it is the melody whereby Trojans celebrate their victory, even as Cassandra –sole witness for historical truth—declares that their joy is a mistake.
- When the few surviving Trojan exiles come ashore in Carthage we hear it weakly in a minor key
- As the Trojan sailors discuss the dire messages from the gods & ghosts of their fallen brothers –admonishing them to leave the comforts of Carthage to resume their journey to Italy—we hear fast snatches of the tune
- When Aeneas and the sailors finally leave –ignoring Dido’s pleas—we hear a brief but full-blown version of the tune as they prepare to sail away
- During the final moments of the opera, when the Carthaginians swear vengeance upon Aeneas, we hear a loud statement of the theme. (note the version on the video is not the same version used in the Met version, although a variant of this theme also figures at the ending, sung by chorus)
Whenever I listen to Troyens, as I did tonight,I have trouble getting this melody out of my head. With a melody like this? It’s a good thing.