John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music

© by John Eaton

Reprinted with permission from The Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol IV, No. 3, Summer 1982

It is almost a truism that music and verse can best use their special abilities to delineate action and create character when an audience can easily follow the plot. The Greek dramatists used some of the noblest and subtlest poetry conceived by man–and only the gods know what music!–to enshrine stories which their audience had heard from childhood. Thus Aeschylus, Sophocles, and especially Euripides are constantly able to manipulate known expectations, and by so doing to provide contrast, surprise, and heightened degrees of aesthetic satisfaction.

The composers of opera, an art that can be seen in spirit at least as an attempt to resuscitate Greek drama, also have turned repeatedly to the same stories. It’s very hard to follow a plot when characters are singing. Using one that is known to a composer’s audience has the obvious and practical advantage that the entire realm of vocal gesture can be liberated and the modern orchestra (which now often includes electronic music) can be unleashed for intensifying the drama or defining a character. The public can then follow the main line of the action without having to understand every single word. Furthermore, by using familiar stories, the composer can imbed the public’s expectations of the dramatic line, by a process perhaps largely unconscious, in the unfolding of the music. Having done this, he is in a position to play with these anticipations, defining the weight and timing of their realization or frustration, and thereby subsume them on a higher level of musical-dramatic form.

This is why composers (and perhaps verse dramatists as well) have so often turned to myths or well-known historical events or best-selling novels or popular plays or theatrical and literary classics. It is in some ways lamentable that the average opera buff goes to hear remarkable singing and that the average member of the operatic audience who is not a buff goes to receive emotional stimulation–to be “moved.” Both pursuits are best served by the traditional warhorses of the operatic canon, where even the music is familiar and attention can be given to the nuances of performance. To succeed in such company, a contemporary opera must shun esoteric or original subjects, unless the public is adequately prepared to follow the plot or unless the composer chooses to dispense with the subtleties, and indeed the very essence of his developed art. In this latter case, the work (which usually consists of one-note-per-syllable text setting over a light and hackneyed accompaniment, with no vocal or little orchestral invention) may enjoy a momentary success but probably will not hold the attention of the serious operatic public for long, and certainly will not make any lasting contributions to the art of the opera.

For, beyond any question, the operas that comprise the heart of the repertoire are those that were written by the best composers of their time or have music that most convincingly and effectively embodies–and emboldens!–a dramatic line or most memorably and touchingly creates characters.

Opera is first and foremost a musical form. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that, when put in conjunction with the other arts, music, being the most abstract of them, must dominate the total motion or slip to so subservient a role as to have little or no shaping force whatsoever.

Furthermore, with the exception, alas, of most recent American works, opera has always engaged the newest musical ideas, the freshest sensibilities. The advantage to the composer seems obvious: drama can help clarify the meaning of new musical gestures and materials. This attraction of new musical conceptions and means exists throughout the history of opera. Monteverdi and the other early opera composers not only discovered a new musical practice, the recitative (expressive melody over a basso continuo), they filled their works with instrumental innovations, the most obvious being the string tremolo to express excitement and danger, as in Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Ciorinda (1624). Richard Wagner not only developed his own musical drama with continuous and irregular vocal lines over a seething orchestra whose symphonic techniques revealed the inner action of the drama, he stimulated the design of new instruments such as the Wagner tubas. Composers of electronic music in our own time have done much to expand their audience by using texts and theatrical presentations.

The great problem in contemporary music, and perhaps in many of the arts, is not one of unity (“It doesn’t hang together”) but of continuity (“I can’t follow it”). Continuity in music is a matter of arousing and addressing the listener’s expectations. Contrast, including the element of surprise t is as essential as unity or homogeneity for holding the listener’ s attention. Since it is difficult to establish continuity in music today, there is all the more reason for choosing a drama that can be easily followed.

Generally, my operas have begun as musical-dramatic ideas. I have often had to search for the subjects they fit, although this has not been conscious on my part. Rather, in reading a play or a bit of history or a novel, I’d suddenly feel chills up and down my spine and know I had my next operatic subject. Generally, I saw immediately the main musical-dramatic line of the work, often in great and precise detail. Then I searched for a librettist who would talk out the dramatic synopsis with me scene-by-scene and, with the closest possible collaboration, write the words. (Once I tried to write my own libretto after actually composing the music, with horrifying results. Perhaps the most curious line was one that fit the music beautifully: “0! To chew on the entrails of a bleating goat!”) The one exception to this general rule of the musical-dramatic line preceding the subject has been my last opera, The Cry of Clytemnestra. This was delivered to me as a finished libretto. However, it was based on a play, the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, which I have loved above any other for my entire life and have often thought of setting. Furthermore, I had worked with the author, Patrick Creagh, on three operas and a host of other projects so that he knew more than anyone else how my musical mind works. Finally, the libretto was completely recast to fit a musical-dramatic form we saw in it based on a recurrent musical gesture, Clytemnestra’s cry, which punctuates the score, separating real time from imagined scenes in the past, present, and future, and which changes each time in psychological meaning, beginning in the depths of anguish over the death of Iphigenia and ending in ecstatic self-realization when she prepares for the return, and killing, of Agamemnon.

What kind of musical ideas–or better, imagined musical continuities–have brought my operas into being? How have the subjects, when chosen, proved apt?

Since the early 1960s, my music has been concerned with the expansion of pitch: with the use of pitches other than those represented by the piano keyboard. (For the sake of brevity, I will not speak of my earlier, chromatic operas although I believe much of what I win say is true of them as well.) These additional notes allow for a great expansion in psychological nuance. To put it in an overly simple and primitive way: if a major third is happy and a minor third, sad, even the use of only quarter tones (the pitches halfway between a white and adjacent black key on a piano keyboard) gives one three more distinct thirds, each one of which seems to have–or at least can be invested by a skillful composer with–its own distinct psychological character. Thus, an opera composer has greatly enriched tools with which to probe the human personality. My opera Myshkin (1970) is based on The Idiot of Dostoevsky. All of the action takes place within the mind of Prince Myshkin. When he is in the state of idiocy, I use kinetic lighting sequences and electronic music based on sixth tones, a smaller and subtler division than the quartertones used by the orchestra. These quartertones, with conventional staging, accompany Prince Myshkin’s more rational states. The two tunings weave in and out of each other, as the audience observes, through the psychological interior of Prince Myshkin: what he sees, imagines, and feels.

Another idea developed in Myshkin–by no means unique to it, but one that is greatly enhanced by the use of microtonal materials–is the simultaneous presentation of different levels of reality. Thus, at a party that culminates in his having an epileptic fit, Myshkin sees Aglaya but dreams of Nastasia, sees the respectable characters of the novel (represented by tonalities on the flat side of Myshkin’s key) but thinks of the disreputable ones (represented by those on the sharp side) .Two tempi related as 5 to 7–or, in other words, distantly related in terms of our ordinary musical experience–present the real and imagined events, respectively. Words and phrases with similar sounds pass from one area to another–for example, “delighted you could come” at the party becomes “with a fee, fie, fo, fum” in a remembered drinking song.

People who know Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot have never failed to be intensely interested in Myshkin. But despite my many efforts to make the story self-sufficient, the opera confuses those who are unfamiliar with the novel. And, having been presented for the first time on television with little or no preparation for the audience, Myshkin simply failed to communicate with a large part of its public. I look forward to stage performances and the greater familiarity, which comes with time and repeated hearings. Can you imagine how confused Richard Strauss’s audience must have been at the first performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten?

The thought that fertilized the ground for Danton and Robespierre (1978) was that Patrick Creagh and I should apply on a social level the techniques explored on a psychological level in Myshkin. But with all the talking we did, stimulated in great part by Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of a Revolution, nothing began on that work until I imagined–and this was the first music written, a particular and unusual musical continuity–the chorale used throughout the opera to express the idealistic vision of Robespierre. I heard this music juxtaposed with the richest kind I had written based on quartertones. Ecco! Danton and Robespierre! The French Revolution! And in Danton and Robespierre, the real life of France, capped by the most fully human music I could write, that of Danton, finds expression in music based on two tempered scales of a quartertone apart. This technique of equal temperament affords a rich ambiguity by identifying pitches with, or even bending them toward, partials of first one scale step, then another. This tempered music is contrasted with the cold, unbending just-intonational system of the chorale-like music of Robespierre, in which every pitch is the partial of one key or its closest related triads (IV and V) .As the idealistic music of Robespierre moves from its own key to other keys it becomes more and more dissonant, depending on the degree of unrelated-ness of the key. Thus chords on the augmented fourth (F-sharp in C) are horribly out of tune, whereas chords in C are without a beat in live performance. (Alas! Pure consonance cannot be recorded because of mechanical imperfections.) The contrast between Danton, a humanist who had the largest library in Paris, a realist in terms of ends who would allow each person to choose his own means of pursuing happiness so long as he did not transgress on the rights of others to do likewise, who loved and was loved by people; and Robespierre, haunted by hereditary injustice, an idealist in terms of ends who would use any means to reshape society, who loved the people–this is the dramatic core of the opera, finding as perfect a musical expression as I could invent in the contrast of tempered, traditional music with just-intonation.

Of course, there is more to this epic opera than a battle between these two personalities, the climax of which is reached in the first scene of the third act. Throughout, many levels of society and their motivating forces are examined, separately and simultaneously. The trial scene is based on three contrasting tempi and classes of sonority (four including those of Danton himself), which represent respectively the judges, the prisoners, and the people of France. In the height of the terror, the 113 days in which Robespierre rules after the guillotining of Danton, there are three levels. First there is the tempered (twenty-four tone) music of the orchestra, which expresses the real life of France-guillotining and terror. Juxtaposed above that is the electronic music chorale representing Robespierre’s vision, the dissonance constantly increasing as the music moves further from its key, as Robespierre’s pure vision is more and more clouded by involvement with reality. Finally, untuning itself against this just-intonational music is the vocal line of Robespierre, culminating in hysteria and madness as Robespierre’s personality crumbles and his control of events disintegrates. (This is dramatic license, not an exact parallel with history.)

In all of my operas, pitch, its resources greatly expanded is returned to its rightful post as the sovereign of music, with rhythm as its domain and color as its plenipotentiary. The movement of the music and musical-dramatic line is primarily controlled by pitches–as it should be! For only pitch has the built-in relations that allow the richness and scope to create the kind of opera I envision. Rhythm and color can stimulate, they can evoke; they cannot by themselves delineate a drama or create a person. What microtonality affords an opera composer is a host of interesting possible relations, heretofore unavailable to fulfill these two purposes. And microtonal composers on the whole are interested not in achieving more dissonance and complexity, but more consonance and clarity, by using a wider harmonic spectrum and greatly multiplied possibilities of harmonic motion.

Although I have stressed the advantage of using familiar subjects and the bond between the germinating musical-dramatic ideas and the subjects I have chosen in three of my last operas, I have not dealt with the particular attractiveness to me of the subjects themselves. Perhaps this is best done by discussing the kinds of subjects I have not used and the reasons they have not appealed to me. (I hope the reader will excuse my being so personal on the subject of libretti. Patrick Creagh, my collaborator on all the operas discussed above, once said, “The main function of an opera libretto is to inspire a composer.” I use this as my license.)

I have never used a contemporary subject. Perhaps this is because a certain distance is needed to create characters that sing beautifully. (Broadway musicals, which have no trouble with contemporary subjects or language, use a different kind of singing from opera–indeed this is the main and perhaps irreconcilable difference between the two arts.) Let me also hazard that a composer–who, more than any other kind of artist, again because of the abstract nature of his materials, is a form-er–needs a certain distance from a dramatic subject so he can see it whole and deal with lives and events that are complete. People we meet every day speak to us. In the world of opera, a distant personality is released for a few hours’ time from the ordinary restraints on his vision or human attributes, and consequently sings.

American subjects have never appealed to me either, except for a very early “jazz” opera based on Ma Barker, the huge (Wagnerian?) leader of a mid-western mob that included her sons, whom she raised according to a stringent criminal code. She seemed to me to have the superhuman (or subhuman) characteristics of a serious operatic figure, even though the opera is largely comic. Part of my quest has been to restore heroism and nobility, ingredients so needed in contemporary life, to opera. That banal, ordinary persons should sing as the major characters is absurd and misses part of the mission of opera: to infuse into a society, through the powerful means of music and poetic vision, high values and purpose. The ultimate models, which though perhaps unrealizable today are nevertheless our goals, are Aeschylus, whose Oresteia sought to establish nothing less than trial by jury, and Verdi, whose very name came a can for independence and liberty. Like them, we must find subjects at a sufficient remove from ourselves and resplendent with dignity.