Friday, 20 April 2012

Vivienne And Dido's Lament - a soprano duet

Vivienne Agnes Bennett, aged 18 years in 1911.
My latest piece memorializes my maternal grandmother Vivienne Agnes Stokes (nee Bennett) who I never met because she committed suicide in 1928 in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). This music sings of Vivienne’s agonies, both before and during her untimely death.
OK. it's confession time. In case you hadn't guessed, it's not my piece at all, it's Henry Purcell's, from his short opera Dido and Aeneas (1689). Henry's greatest fan, Peter Gore-Purcell, shamelessly made off with His Musicke and with some deft surgery tacked on one extra soprano voice - that of Vivienne, who (according to her daughter, my late mother Noreen Stokes) was a sensitive musician and highly competent pianist. Thus, adding my own metaphorical cornflour to Purcell's already-delicious musical soup, the texture of the original solo aria thickens into a duet. I justify such audacious sacrilege in part because Purcell loved duets and wrote many.
Nevertheless, I hasten to point out that Vivienne and Dido's Lament remains merely an adaption - but it demanded to be created, as it was becoming a thorough nuisance ricocheting round my head. Purcell is the towering Artist, I remain the admiring apprentice.
If you're unfamiliar with Purcell's original, you could hardly do better than first to hear Emma Kirkby and her crystal clear soprano voice on Youtube, accompanied by the languid sound of a 17th-century viol consort. Viols resemble the human voice even more closely than modern Strings because their notes have a slower 'attack' due to the bow-hair being less taut. The clip begins with the short recitative sung by Dido to her maid-servant Belinda, sadly informing her that she intends soon to stab herself. During the orchestral postlude, she is accompanied offstage by Belinda and carries out the deed. The above link will open in a new window for convenience.
Listen to how things change when Vivienne joins Dido in a suicide pact. Connect your device to a decent sound system or enclosed headphones, then click the orange PLAY button...

Alternatively (in particular if you are on a not-so-smartphone), you can access my recording at its original SoundCloud URL by clicking here. Either way, my mp3 file is downloadable and free.
Please listen through a quality sound-system or enclosed headphones, or you may lose the very necessary bass-line (I assure you that you'll be wasting your time if you listen through your tinny laptop speakers). 
My recording was synthesized using Sibelius 6 software which, unfortunately, cannot yet be persuaded to pronounce lyrics. The two voice parts are therefore only in 'vocalize' style, but the lyrics are simple enough to follow anyway...
iiiiiiiiiiii When I am laid in earth
iiiiiiiiiiii May my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast; [repeat]
iiiiiiiiiiii Remember me, but ah! forget my fate. [repeat]
However, even if you don't read music well, the easy-to-follow words in the printed score will surely assist in understanding the two singers as they interweave.  The pdf score is available here on Scribd, free, downloadable, and copyright-free in the public domain. This link will open in a new window, enabling you to scroll through the music while listening. All I ask of intending performers is that you acknowledge Peter Gore-Symes as the arranger.
Vivienne's story
My mother (pianist Noreen Stokes) was ten years old when her mother Vivienne died mysteriously behind closed doors.  Her father promptly passed her and her brother into the less-than-willing care of disinterested grandparents, and never confided anything to them about their mother’s grim death. Consequently, mum was haunted throughout her life by the grotesque questions of How and Why. There was an impenetrable wall of silence which she was still too cautious to broach even when, as an elderly man, her father visited us in Singapore in the mid-1950s. The awful secrets died with him, much to my mother’s great remorse - she regretted never being courageous enough to ask.
Then, unexpectedly, only about 2 years ago, by which time my mother was 92 and almost blind, one of her relatives unearthed my grandmother's death certificate from the just-released Zimbabwe Archives. On it, the coroner's conclusion was "Arsenical poisoning (Suicide)". And if the gritty detail of an associated family legend is also accurate, it wasn't pretty, and I’ll spare you. I felt reluctant to relay much of the news to Mum in her old age for fear of traumatizing her further. To stir it all up again somehow seemed unkind, too late, and pointless in the end. But now that my mother has also passed away, I feel the personal need to write it out of my system, almost as if on her behalf. Indeed, I can well imagine Vivienne on her deathbed, dearly wishing she could have sung Dido's very words "forget my fate" to her devastated young daughter who was waiting anxiously in the wings for any scrap of news.
In Defence of the Indefensible: re-writing Purcell
Borrowing a canonical masterpiece such as Dido’s Lament and being arrogant enough to alter it risks obvious accusations of gilding the lily ...or worse. Why would you attempt to "improve" the Mona Lisa, you ask. Well, when standing on the shoulders of giants, one can see a great deal further... but by the same token one also has much further to fall. I stand accused of Aggravated Rebranding, and can offer little by way of excuse, but beg you to [a] excuse my indulgence, and [b] expect the unexpected. Be boldly prepared to suspend your disbelief. Above all, don’t hope that your beloved Dido will sound the same as that treasured CD in your collection, or of course you’ll be disappointed.
But in one sense Purcell's music hasn’t been altered. I have very largely preserved his original Dido in musical formalin (apart from a few tiny - but dispensable - tweaks to the accompanying strings). Even the Intro and Outro have been kept pristinely intact.
Purcell's key of g-minor also remains unchanged, even though I looked sideways at Vivienne's high A and toyed with lowering the key of the entire aria to f-minor. However, every Baroque composer worth their salt knew that a modulation to g-minor was the appropriate Harbinger of sadness, tragedy, and death, the musical Grim Reaper of the myth-oriented seventeenth-century operatic world*. The key of  f-minor was usually reserved for scary scenes foreboding the appearance of Witches - hardly suitable here. No question about it - Vivienne must bravely keep her high A.
 It’s just that I added one extra vocal line... one that Henry may not have thought of. Composers of mediaeval motets got up to this kind of lark all the time. For today’s lovers of mid-Baroque music, however, habituated to a comfortably familiar armchair ride with one of their favourite pot-boilers, tolerating even the smallest alteration or add-on can be a mighty tough ask. This can be true even when the arranger has attempted to “write-in-the-style-of" ...let alone adding cheeky non-idiomatic touches! But what the heck - on this occasion, I feel recklessly impelled to bypass our stuffy 21st-century cultural gatekeepers. Yes, I'm afraid you're going to have to be brave, grit your teeth, and deal with it. History is on my side.
Nuts & Bolts
Purcell built Dido’s Lament using the standard Baroque device known as the Ground Bass, a short melodic phrase repeated many times in the bass. It is literally the ground, the foundation, upon which the music is constructed. It just rumbles on forever, over and over, like Old Father Time grinding relentlessly on.** This particular Ground descends slowly through chromatically stepwise notes, analogous to a chilly staircase stretching out before one’s feet, as if leading down to the grave. To emphasize its vital role, and to assist the listener to remember it, Purcell decided to quote it solo as a lead-in before the voices begin (highlighted in blue). In this excerpt, string parts have been omitted:
 The constant recycling of the Ground Bass throughout the aria serve to underscore Dido’s obsessive, circular thinking about her loss of her lover Aeneas, the painful recollection of happy moments, the sick-hearted imagining of alternate outcomes.***
Interestingly, in the orchestral postlude immediately after the singing is finished and Dido and Vivienne are doing away with themselves, the first violin performs a similar falling chromatic line. It slowly sinks down through the same octave span, but in a much higher, far more 'celestial' pitch range. Achingly beautiful, melancholy and spacious... but just a little spooky once you realize the intended allusion to Dido sinking down into her grave. It could also be thought of as the ghost of the Ground Bass, especially given the gothically hollow sound of the very last chord (which, in the consciously anachronistic tradition of mediaeval cadencing, conspicuously lacks its usual "padding"... in this case the G-minor triad is bereft of its expected B-flat).
 Purcell was a master of the expressive devices such as the suspension, essentially the art of using strategically-placed "wrong notes" to heighten emotional poignancy. Of this, Samuel Butler once quipped that "discords make the sweetest airs”. I find it deliciously ironic that the wrong note is usually the most beautiful one.
Dissonances from such "wrong" notes, glittering and flashing like tiny inset diamonds, are frequently found scattered across Purcell's scores, often serving to intensify a sad word or phrase. Metaphorically, they could be felt as little stabs of musical pain. In Dido's Lament, Purcell mostly contrives to make these dissonances fall in pitch in order to resolve (or "correct" themselves). The first example occurs promptly in the opening phrase "When I am" in which the first of the two notes allocated to the word "laid" strains against the new harmony. The second half of the word is consequently drawn strongly downwards - as if by irresistable gravitational heartstrings.  
 This falling gesture imitates the profile of the voice of a person sobbing in grief, “the spirit sinking step by step, straining to recover, then sinking again."*** This manipulation of dissonance, that sweetest source of musical sorrow, with its consequent ebb-and-flow of tension, lies at the heart of the genre and character of the Lament.
 The attentive listener to Vivienne's part may also detect a gradual transition from Consonant to Dissonant, from Sweetness to Bitterness, from Clarity to Confusion. I imagined Vivienne's thoughts beginning to jumble and panic as the poison began to take hold as she gradually faded. As a consequence, her notes increasingly collide with the other lines in the music: and therein lie opportunities for further moments of dissonance and dark despair.
Unlike Dido, however, some of Vivienne's dissonant "wrong" notes actually fail to resolve or "correct" themselves. These constitute some of the non-idiomatic touches to which I referred. Their musical tension is thereby prolonged and unrelieved - which I felt was exactly in accord with the spirit of Vivienne's story, its sinister absence of answers. They are my mother's torments over How and Why.
 Another exquisite feature of Purcell’s song is the insistent, even desperate, repetition of “Re-mem-ber me”, the four repeated notes evoking the tolling of some distant funerary bell, or (as Alex Ross put it), “a Morse-code signal from oblivion”. Goose-bump material. Of course I retained Dido's repeated notes (how could anyone do otherwise?), but made Vivienne's fall chromatically - in the spirit of the Lament. In fact, most Vivienne's shorter phrases tend to fall, whereas her longer lines mostly invoke the contour of arched sighs (screams, perhaps?), rising first before the inevitable plunge down.
 Finally, during the agonizingly tender string postlude, both Vivienne and Dido depart this world. The crucial difference between them, however, is that Dido is merely acting an operatic role.
And there's the interesting fact that Dido's phrases often don't consistently align with the Ground Bass - except at structurally significant cadence points. The vocal phrases drape themselves freely and at length over the short and rigidly repeated bass. Purcell understood that overlapping like this in such an irregular manner would not only generate interest through contrast, but would also facilitate an almost constant rainbow spectrum of harmonic hues to add to the pathos of human feeling. Genius, sir!  Hats off to Mr Purcell - I've stood by his grave next to the organ in Westminster Abbey. On the other hand, I haven't yet managed to locate Vivienne's grave - which only intensifies the mystery, like a closing sentence conspicuously lacking its full-stop  
Vivienne Agnes Stokes (née Bennett) in 1927, the year before she died.
  By way of irrelevant post-script, it's interesting to note that the practice of using a Ground Bass (or 'Obstinato' Bass) originally came from the rollicking late 16th century Italian peasant dance called the Ciaccona (Fr: Chaconne), whose typical bassline repeated a simple 4-note descending fragment such as G - F - Eb - D.
Some later composers (such as Purcell) merely filled in the intervening chromatic notes and slowed the tempo down in order to allow more complex harmonies extra time to "breathe". With these touches of the compositional brush, the formula for what had been regarded as a raunchily daring 'Tango-like' dance was transformed into the tearfully languishing Lament. In this sense Purcell was not a ground-breaking innovator [ouch - excuse the pun] ...he had inherited an existing recipe then proceeded to adapt and distil it masterfully into a connoiseur whisky.


* Baroque audiences were easily able to hear the key changes, not because they possessed the facility of perfect pitch, but because the Meantone Temperament (tuning system) of Purcell's day caused each different key to be tuned in its own characteristic and unique way (also known as 'key colour'). A modulation to the key of g-minor was automatically associated with Grief, Pathos, Tragedy and Death. Other keys signified different states. For more, click here to open an information page in its own window.      xxxxx
** Incidentally, whether listening to Purcell's music or my version of it, I recommend the experience of sending your ears down to the Ground Bass and focusing on it, rather than the voice[s]. If you've not tried that before, the outcome could be revealing, and you may never hear the aria in quite the same way again. Perhaps think of it as "X-ray listening". The voice is easy enough to hear anyway in this piece, and will take care of itself. 
 *** Alex Ross. Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues in Listen to This. Fourth Estate, London, 2010, p.41.

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