On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Music Hath Charms: Incidental Music in Drama

Possibly no dramatist has been as cognizant of the effect music on the audience as August Strindberg, who in his introduction to Miss Julie says he expects music "to exercise its powers of persuasion." Mostly as we watch a play or a movie, we are content to let the sounds of music and suggestions of the verse lap over us, instilling impressions that are less intellectual than emotional. An examination of the music included in this now obscure work should make clear the assertion that playwrights of an earlier day, yet not excluding our own time, have specific rationale for introducing music into their dramas. Of course, this use of music is not to be confused with any work which has musical expression as its primary objective, i.e., opera and its derivative forms. There, music is the raison d'etre. Incidental music in the drama, on the other hand, is an effective device to enhance the mood of a work, underscore themes, and further define character.

We know from Strindberg's instructions to the musical director how vitally important he considered the music in Miss Julie.  He cautions him in "his choice of compositions, so that conflicting moods are not induced by selections from the current operetta or dance show, or by folk tunes of too local a character." Mood, as we know, isn’t grasped on a solely intellectual level since it’s accompanied by emotion. From that perspective, then, the stage directions in the opening scene which require a "fiddle . . . be heard from the dance in the barn near-by" should be noted. They imply the need for a festive atmosphere, certainly, but for viewers of Strindberg's day, an even more potent effect might have been achieved.

At that time in Scandinavia, the fiddle had become almost a "wanton" kind of instrument, according to Thomas Sydnes, my great-grandfather’s brother, an immigrant to America writing about folk ways in his native Norway. He tells of the change in customs following a religious revival called the Westland Awakening: "In times past they not only had merriment at weddings alone but had usually one or two parties a month. . . . There were after the "Awakening" religious meetings . . . and a fiddle, if one were found, must be cast up into the dark loft and not come within sight of folks' eyes. . . . I got an accordian before long--it was not as dangerous." Miss Julie is set in Sweden, of course, but because of the close proximity of that country to Norway and their similar religious heritages, we may presume a corresponding influence of clergy, which lasted among the less sophisticated for years.

When the peasants come swarming into the kitchen raucously singing, Jean and Julie take that opportunity to closet themselves in the Jean's bed chamber. The folk song undoubtedly has two musical components that can assist the mood of the play at this point. First, as the words indicate, the tempo should be lively and brisk, engendering excitement. Secondly, like many folk tunes, it typically would be in the minor mode, which gives a undertone of melancholy. This combination of tempo and mode allows the viewers to feel the excitement of the two main characters in their forbidden passion for one another while they sense the foreshadowing of tragedy.

The words of the "little known song," which are sung by the peasants, have a "double meaning," Strindberg acknowledges. Suggestive of the relationship of the two principles, the taunting quality of the song mimics the teasing remarks of Julie to Jean before their sexual union, and his cruel honesty to Julie afterwards when he sneeringly tells her, "And a whore is a whore." Julie can be likened to the first woman in the song, who "came out of the woods" and is "bare and cold" in her desire for Jean. Likewise, Jean, a mercenary upstart, "talked of bags of gold," as did the second "woman." Jean is aware of the intended insult and tells Julie, "They're mocking--you and me." Julie's degraded and insincere seduction of Jean is echoed in the final stanza: "The bridal wreath I give to you. . . . But to another I'll be true." In these words, viewers glimpse the sham of Julie and Jean's relationship through the excitement of the moment, a clever insinuation of music by the dramatist to cast a complex emotional pall on what seems to be a simple folk celebration.

To average play- or moviegoers, the music is rarely analyzed; it usually is enjoyed and absorbed as part of the texture of the work. As seen in Miss Julie, music can have an important role to play and be as obtrusive or as subtle as the playwright deems suitable. It cannot, nor should not, be central to the drama, but its contribution goes beyond the peripheral to serve in its turn and add pleasure and edification for viewers.

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