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Ludus Danielis

Incidental music as a dramatic character

Incidental music as a simultaneous dramaturgy

Hercules - the concept of a stage oratorio

Vladimír Franz

Incidental music as a dramatic character

(April 2000, USITT Denver conference, U.S.; this text was published in the Theatre Design & Technology magazine, summer 2000)

Musical examples used during the lecture are not available here.

My honorable friends, ladies and gentlemen,

In the first place, let me express my sincere thanks for your invitation, which I welcome not only as an appreciation of my work in the field of incidental music and drama in general. Moreover I see it as an expression of your admirable commitment to an eternal cultural search and of your effort to culturally globalize our planet. Once again, thank you.

I have been working for drama in the field of incidental music for twenty years by now, and I percieve my work primarily as a service. I do believe that an author aware of his mission of a servant cannot -- unlike an author involved in some sort of a loose creative process -- be misled by his pride and lose a measure of the space confined to him.

As my own loose creative process concerns, I do monumental paintings and I compose classical music. I do not believe these two languages of exploring secrets of the world exclude one another. On the other hand, I do not believe that they should necessarily influence one another or that they should be considered condition to one another.

When painting, I am interested in those places in the countryside which had been once civilized and consequently left to themselves. Zones like this tend more strongly than others to remove traces of human presence. I look for that what holds this particular sort of energy within the countryside: like the secret of darkness beneath the stones or the grass devouring the remains of buildings. I strive to record the strength of the land, as well as that what remains of the man and his actions. The wells left after former villages, rust-eaten plows, swarms that moved to hollow trees. I am after the soil, sky and water, blended together in some sort of cosmological vision in a unique product of energy. And I see all that towering above the depth of historical memory and historical conciousness. To put it shortly: I'm after the path to the roots.

In my music, this path is manifested in revealing the dramatic principles of a musical drama. I am trying to find the frontier, where the ritual ends and the dramatic artform sui generis starts. My greatest achievement in this effort is an oratory opera Ludus Danielis, finished last week. In this opera, the dramatic tension produced is solely an outcome of an arrangment of features of a musical drama. I composed this opera to a libretto of one of the oldest medieval dramas preserved, the Daniel's play, written in 12th century in the French city of Beauvais. On basis of a libretto several hundred years old, a piece was created which takes almost two hours and involves 5 soloists, 2 choirs, a narrator, a symphonic orchestra and an organ; a piece that brings the medieval world mystery to our time. In its theme, there is a question of conscience and responsibility on part of the rulers of this world -- and a question of whether this problem is still considered relevant.

Unfortunately, we cannot listen to extracts from the opera, as it will not be recorded before the premiere, which is going to take place within three months under patronage of Czech President Havel as a part of the annual musical festival Janacek's Hukvaldy.

Chamber cantata Tractatus Pacis is another work falling within the cathegory of my loose musicwriting. This is actually a historic document, written by George of Podebrady, King of Bohemia, put to music. In the document the king addresses rulers of neighboring countries and suggests -- in mid 15th century -- that an European union should be formed. Aside from the peace agreement proposal a quote from biblical Apocalypse is included in cantata's script.

I sincerely don't have much against European union, so that is not the point here. The dramatic quarell of the two themes is meant to manifest the fact that too many good intentions never materialize and moreover, that their materialization frequently exceeds human capabilities.

That is the bit I wanted to say about my painting and loose musicwriting. Next, we can move on to the main topic of my speech, incidental music.

The idea I have of working for drama and occasionally for film and television, is that of a work in a laboratory of dramatic sensations. This is where you can freely choose procedures and means, build up dramatic arches or, if you prefer, arrange dramatic still lifes.

Incidental music forms the emotional and dramatic backbone of a drama, and together with the plot it complementarily produces the tempo-rythm of a particular staging.

At the beginning, there was a ritual, where spoken word and music had an equal standing and they were mutually balanced. After these two components became distinct, their function differentiated. Spoken word, the pivot of literal meaning, was raised to become a dominant component, and music was to serve it in form of dances, intermezzos or preludes.

In times of Romanticism and Neo-Romanticism, the goal was to bring components of a staging closer to one another, and "literalization" of music was one of its outcomes. One of the ways to do this was the Richard Wagner-type drama with its declamatory singing. The process continued with full-length melodramas written by Zdenek Fibich, a Czech composer, and further on, with the melodization of the spoken word, as found in Schonberg's "sprechgesang" or Leos Janacek's notation of speech.

The music created in this way was -- and that is important -- interpreted live. As an outcome, it could not be present everywhere, that is, it could not be performed continuously through the staging. The situation changed radically with the development of recorded music in drama, and more noticably, in film. Due to this development the melodramatic principle substantiated, but more importantly, it also degenerated and lost much of its original value. We cannot seriously imagine someone speaking on the stage with a live symphonic orchestra in the background, but with music in present day film and drama, this is only a matter of the right mixboard button being pushed at the right time.

As a result, we nowadays live in a permanent melodrama, not only in film and drama, but in our everyday lives as well. There is no restaurant, bar, shopping mall, without something being played back in the background. This "something" must not hold our attention or disturb, its sole purpose is to create a musical coulisse, because silence apparently is hardly within capabilities of modern person's imagination, and if it is, it is something to be afraid of. Music concepted as a coulisse vulgarizes our emotional life, and conseqeuently, we lose our musical taste, impose limits on our emotions and perception. Such a person permanently and unconcioussly desires melodrama, even though he or she has no idea what melodrama is about.

This can be well demonstrated with the present tremendous popularity of Esmeralda TV series in Europe (I must admit I don't know what the situation in the U.S. is). In this series, a silly dialogue, resembling dadaism unwantingly, is blended with cascades of absolutely disfunctional symphonic music: the product probably serves to drown and erase any thought present in consumer's mind. As a result, one finds it more easy to identify himself with the characters and less vigillant to the lack of logic in the plot. Human civilization becomes infantilized and the consumer feels like he is part of a fairy tale.

Indeed, Richard Wagner used much simmilar means, yet the difference in their quality and usage is tremendous. Of this sort of music -- and this is music of major motion pictures as well --- govererned by the scheme: the main theme at the beginning, somewhere in the second third and at the end, the rest being filled by the mass of simple sounds corresponding to "rush", "calm", "tension", "danger", etc., well, of this music I am not going to speak. I might only point out that its origins in style are easy to count on one hand -- Wagner's Twilight of Gods, Holst's Planets (namely Mars), Puccini's Turandot, free movements in Bruckner's and Mahler's sympohnies, intermezzos in late operas of Rimsky-Korsakov -- and the fact that these authors where countlessly exploited and mutilated in various movies.

The music I am interested in is not of the background-forming type, but that which specifically characterizes, the music which forms a dramatic and tempo-rhytmic counterpoint to a staging or to a movie, the music which can be partner to the actors, the director, the set designer. That is, the music which can be a character of the drama on its own.

For such a music to act, a body is needed. This body is formed by a specific key, a clear melodic theme, carefully chosen harmonic procedure, and by a fixed dramatic principle. Before I start my work, I always ask the director "What is the dramatic function of music in the staging going to be?" Indeed, there is a diversity in possible dramatic functions. The music can confine the space, form frames, lead an inner dialogue with the key character, or even bring a poetic or kinetic solution to specific situation and in such a manner, exchange roles with set designing. It can precede a situation, summarize it and reach the final verdict. The more venturous and open is the director's conception, the more venturous and open can the musical counterposition be.

Whatever the staging or the film is, virtually any music can be used for it, if -- to put it vulgarily -- played at the right moment. This moment of virtual creative freedom strikes me as frightning. The music and the correspoding situation simply need a point in common.

Let's a look at the beginning of John's Passion by Johan Sebastian Bach. I believe this is a perfect choice of music for a wide screen shot of the Allies disembarking at the coast of Normandy in 1944. What is the common point of image and music in this case?

In the first place, there is a relentless double motion: in the image, this is the surf and the motion of the boats. The outcry "Gott!" ("God!") is a sign of both desperation and hope.

Secondly, both music and the image have this specific greyish local color.

So where does the dramatic counterpoint come from? It comes from the interaction of the relentless war machinery and the limitless compassion of Bach's music.

I took an analogical approach when composing music to the opening scene of the Wandering (Bloudeni) drama at the National Theatre in Prague. The opening scene describes the execution of 27 Czech noblemen at the Old Town Square in Prague in 1621. This is a rigorous scene, bare as if taken from Kafka, iluminated by chilly light. Well-dressed men come and mechanically undress the convicts. To put this into music, I used a pure baroque script: "Be well, the lanterns of heavenly palace." To this script, full of diminutives characteristic of baroque, I composed sort of a quasibaroque cantata in style of a small town holiday with clear inconsistencies in vocal parts, as if it was composed by some country author in late 17th century. Hence the music stands in opposition to the chilly scene.

I used a simmilar principle, this time based on the conflict of what's countable and what's not, in the same staging, namely in the scene depicting the city of Magdeburg being burned down, the most appaling massacre of the Thirty Years War. An uproar cannot be multiplied. The director chose a poetic detail: a crowd of people, with buckets on their shoulders, approaches a huge gateway. The gateway opens up and armed men stand motionlessly behind. Finally, they slowly approach the people and take the buckets of their shoulders. The people fall dead on the ground.

It's up to the music to slow down the motion and to bring on the sense of fear as it relentlessly increases in volume. For this reason, I chose a minimalistic musical solution. On its top comes an ironic quote from Luther's hymn "A sturdy castle our God is". The script of this hymn is put to music three times in the play -- in Czech, German and Swedish --- this characterizes the armies which took part in the Thirty Years War.

A typical characteristics of a setting is given for the city of Cheb (Egger), the place where general Valdstejn was murdered in February of 1634. In February, Masopust, a folk carneval opening the Lent, took place in Central European towns. Valdstejn, seriously ill, lies in his room, with crowds bustling outside. Musically, I chose sort of a ritual formed by rhytmic chant of randomly chosen German words, with each verse concluded by a shout in Czech: "Masopust".

Occasionaly, music can form a loop in time. One of the key characters of Wandering is kidnapped and dragged to a distant foreign country. While talks about the ransom go on, the captive is moved from one castle jail to another. Seasons pass, the captive falls in love, becomes sick with fever and he does not get home until three years pass. I solved this situation through a vocal intremezzo to folk lyrics: "There will be war, who's gonna fight? Our little son's who's gonna fight."

I could analyze the entire staging, including lot more other worlds and places - Catholic Spain, native Peruans, love songs and war anthems. But I will rather mention the key principle, common for all the music for Wandering. This principle is: any musical form collapses if its limits are penetrated.

In the following extract I try to respect the baroque principle, where the heaven opens but beneath all the joy and pomp, death and decay waits in ambush. This fugato is slowly joined by one vocal after antoher until it chokes and turns in a sort of death dance.

Incidental music must have the power to call by name, to be concrete. Let's listen to a ball scene from a play titled Master and Margarete, based on famous Bulgakov's novel.

A ball, that means a fast waltz. Here it comes.

Yet that would be to unconcrete, too romantic. We need to aim the music more precisely.

We also need to give a name to a frame of the action, let's call it "The Ball at Satan's Place".

I will show you a different method of characteristics. This time it uses a detail based on motion. The story of Master and Margarete is set in Moscow of 1930s. As we all know, everything was controlled by secret state police, the KGB, by that time. So here is the motif of the KGB:

Move and stop, move and stop -- take just a few steps and listen to hear someone saying something against the government, few more steps, stop and listen once again.

This motif is well applicable to an ordinary citizen, who's been either silent or who has cooperated with the KGB. Thus: a few steps, check if someone's following me, few more steps, listen to what my neighbor says, etc.

It is important to be aware of a concrete detail.

A month ago, I finished music for a staging of Hamlet. In this particular case, the dramatic function of music lies in building limits for actors, which ammounts almost to set-designing. Some scenes, like the funeral ceremony for the dead king, are actually staged outdoors, in front of the theatre.

When composing music, I was inspired by arts of totalitarian governments, particularly by the Soviet war monuments, Czechoslovak Spartakiad ceremony, the Congressional stadium in Nurnberg or the statues of Arno Brecker. The result is a brutal, slightly vulgar music, marked by occasional excursions to the land of evil.

In this funeral march, percussion instruments are very important. They make the march a mass event, since they depict horses. Without that detail, this could be an ordinary country funeral.

The use of vulgarity further graduates. The following polka (somebody would say: "What does music like this do in a staging of Hamlet?") slowly dissolves until only the breath remains.

Some spots in Hamlet are an essence of evil, however there is a need to compensate them with humor. The music, as I have mentioned earlier, forms a frame, in some parts it ritualizes the sitation and confines a relatively wide space for the actors, not standing in their way at the same time.

The musical arch can live independently, but I have also mentioned the need for common point. In this case, it is the theme of sad love, included in many variations. This theme also ties the entire mass of music back to the drama.

In The Red and The Black, a staging based on Stendhal's novel of the same name, a very simple key theme is repeated over and over. It is important to realize that the theme needs the capacity to play a key role, otherwise the principle I am about to discuss will go away unnoticed. Shortly, the theme is repeated too many times. Naturally, not in the same form. Once from the beginning, once from the middle, crescendo, decrescendo, with a hall-effect, from various places in the space, etc. What comes out of that? At the beginning we hear the theme full of eagerness and romantic fluttering, then it resembles love and adventure, later on freedom and travelling. The original contents will become entirely exhausted and theme simplifies to a specific feature, which will annnoy us more and more until it becomes totally unbearable. For such a musical solution of the staging one more theme is needed. You use it at the time when everybody expects the already unbearable previous theme will be repeated the last time. This is a card player's principle: an ace hidden in the sleeve, that nobody knows about until the last moment.

I have touched the ritualization issue a couple of times already. I understand ritualization in drama as one of the forms of returning to the roots. Naturally, there are various types of roots: I believe a man should identify himself with those roots he chooses for himeself. Ritual is a graduated rhytm-based realization of that what extends beyond us, or of that what we expect to extend beyond us.

In staging of Její Pastorkyne (this is the drama which Leos Janacek based his opera Jenufa upon), a courting takes place. Simultaneously, forced recruiting is carried out by the army. I used percussion instruments for this scene, partly played back, partly live -- actors on the stage use metal plate barrels. Something really savage came out of this.

As a European I could not quite get rid of the tradition, so a fugue of seven vocals is heard through the percussion instruments, however the viewer should not notice this.

I don't use solely Moravian folklore, since the folklore -- which is just a relation of a man and nature crafted in a rhytmical form -- is identical all over the world.

At the beginning of Gazdina roba drama (a play written at the end of 19th century about a fallen peasant woman), I use instruments typical of Moravian folklore (a violin, a clarinet, a dulcimer, a double bass), arranged in an unconventional manner. Iggy Popp's song along with a historic recording of the author's voice is blended into a scene where villagers dance with their flails phosphorescing. It is worth noting that the there is nothing strained about the result.

Even a very tense drama must have a point where everything turns into humor - this only increases the dramatic point.

In staging of Marysa, I use a very ascetic choir. Out of its theme, the symphonic music materializes. Through the symphonic means of late 19th century I try to make the features of late 19th century decorative art authentic. The wistfull nature of the entire piece requires its compensation in humor. So there is the principle of contrast, coming out of one musical substratum.

Marysa, doubtlessly the best Czech drama, tells a bleak story of a girl forced to enter an unfortunate marriage and consequently led to poisoning her husband. In a tense scene shortly before the end, where sort of "Dance Macabre" takes place in a pub, the same substratum is used to form a small composition, which I gave a working title "A hedgehog and a shrew are off to hunt mushrooms". Needless to say, no little animals take part in the play, but the contrast to a dance of death, which follows, is substantially strengthened.

Marysa's husband drinks the poisoned coffee and leaves for work in the field. The scene, as opposed to the script, is static and bare, only the music can be heard and in the background, an iluminated field shining with silver, made of 80 thousand nylon threads, arises. In this field, a black figure of Marysa's poisoned husband lies muffled. Sort of Passion.

My honorable friends. Here it is not my goal to describe all the dramatic principles I worked on in 85 stagings of drama so far. The few examples I mentioned have been meant to introduce you to some of the key principles governing the incidental music when percieved as a dramatic character.

What I have been trying to do here is to manifest that, if there is will, applied art does not have to be something inferior, it does not have to be reduced to an industrial semi-product, that is, to something that seems to flood us from everywhere these days, something that kills human originality and uniqueness. I have been trying to point out that concious service to a broader concept can, together with multiplication of various types of energy, give the art once again its vital moral function, which is, to help us all survive.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for listening.

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