An imbalance of humors

We spent last week in Chicago, visiting family (including Soho the Dog’s Midwest critic-at-large, Wilson, seen at right), and while we were there, we had a chance to revisit one of the coolest places in the universe—no, not Superdawg, although, yes, we did go there, too—I’m talking about Bookman’s Alley in Evanston. It’s a labyrinthine dream of a bookstore, one dusty room of treasures after another. My lovely wife picked up a volume of handwriting analyses of famous people (including composers, which means it may put in an appearance here someday). I scored this curiosity: Bluebeard, by Kate Douglas Wiggin.


This short little book is not what you would expect from the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Bluebeard is a burlesque in the form of a transcribed lecture-recital describing a purported long-lost Wagner opera on the subject of the titular serial monogamist-murderer. (In case you’re wondering, Wiggin’s book dates from 1914; Bartók composed his version in 1911, but it remained unperformed until 1918.) Wiggin is trying to satirize three things at once: “modern,” Ibsen-like views on love and marriage; explications of Wagnerian music-drama for the benefit of wealthy dilettantes; and Wagnerian opera itself. The first subject crops up here and there, but you get the sense that, beyond the choice of the opera’s subject, Wiggin’s heart really isn’t in this one, and what few jokes there are fall pretty flat. As for making fun of the typical operatic audience, she starts out with some promise:

Learned critics, pitifully comprehending the fathomless ignorance of the people, began to give lectures on the “Ring” to large audiences, mostly of ladies, through whom in course of time a certain amount of information percolated and reached the husbands—the somewhat circuitous, but only possible method by which aesthetic knowledge can be conveyed to the American male. Women are hopeless idealists! It is not enough for them that their brothers or husbands should pay for the seats at the opera and accompany them there, clad in irreproachable evening dress. Not at all! They wish them to sit erect, keep awake, and look intelligent, and it is but just to say that many of them succeed in doing so.

That’s as far as it goes, though—the rest of the gags are just restatements of this theme, although Wiggin is a good enough writer to get a fair amount of mileage out of the various faux-genteel variations.

It’s the actual musical humor where the book really sparkles. Wiggin had musical training, and worked as a church organist for a time; armed with experience, she takes the material farther than a less-practiced observer would know how to do. She has particular fun devising suspiciously pedestrian leitmotives that only reveal their true meaning under expert analysis:

What does this portend—this entrance of another theme, written for the treble clef, played with the right hand, but mysteriously interwoven with the bass? What but that Bluebeard is not to be the sole personage in this music-drama; and we judge the stranger to be a female on account of the overwhelming circumstantial evidence just given.

Bluebeard, when first introduced—you remember the movement, one of somber grandeur leading upward to vague desire—was alone and lonely. Certainly the first, probably the second. If his mood were that of settled despair, typical of a widower determined never to marry again no matter what the provocation, the last note of the phrase would have been projected downward; but, as you must have perceived, the melody terminates in a tone of something like hope. There is no assurance in it—do not misunderstand me; there is no particular lady projected in the musical text—that would have been indelicate, for we do not know at the moment precisely the date when Bluebeard hung up his last wife; but there is a groping discontent. At the opening of the drama we have not been informed whether Bluebeard has ever been married at all or only a few times, but we feel that he craves companionship, and we know when we hear this “Immer-wieder-heirathen Motiv” (Always About to Marry Again Motive) that he secures it.

This is just enough over the line to be parody—it’s actually not that far off from the old Ernest Newman Stories of the Great Operas—but as the “lecture” goes on, the examples get progressively sillier:

This Fatima, or Seventh Wife Motive seems to be written in a curiously low key if we conceive it to be the index to the character of a soprano heroine; but let us look further. What are the two principal personages in the music-drama to be to each other?

If enemies, the phrase would have been written thus:
If acquaintances, thus:
If friends, thus:
If lovers, thus:
the ardent and tropical treble note leaving its own proper sphere and nestling cozily down in the bass staff. But the hero and heroine of the music-drama were husband and wife; therefore the phrases are intertwined sufficiently for propriety, but not too closely for pleasure.

Wiggin eventually arrives at a ridiculous plateau worthy of John Cage and Monty Python:

The “Ausgespielt Motiv” is written in four flats, but as a matter of fact only one person is flat, viz.: Blue-beard, who has just been slain by Mustapha. The other three flats must refer to the sheep accidentally hit by the younger brothers, who aim for Bluebeard, but miss him, being indifferent marksmen.

The best jokes in the book aren’t really about marriage, or rich people, or Wagner; they’re self-referential musical absurdities—which, I think, is indicative of the difficulty in making music the literary repository of ideas about anything other than music itself. Fiction that uses the visual arts as a metaphor for something or other is far more common than fiction that uses music in the same way; novels that similarly use theater (or the novel itself) are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to imagine why: those disciplines, even in their most avant-garde guises, are figurative in ways that no music, however programmatic, can ever be. And the workaday experience of making music is both more mundane and more mysterious than non-musicians ever seem to imagine. It’s why novelists often stumble so badly when it comes to capturing both the craft and the effect of music (Anthony Powell and Robertson Davies are the only authors I can think of off the top of my head that come close, though Thomas Mann gets it wrong in such an interesting and deeply thought-out way that it doesn’t bother me, and James M. Cain is so damned entertaining that I forgive him).

I’m not saying that music can’t be used to depict such prosaic things (that is, things that are well-suited to prose)—but I am saying that it’s not really what music does best. Think of Rossini comic operas: the music is marvelously illustrative of every pratfall and plot twist, but for my money, the funniest parts are those choruses where everybody just stops, turns to the audience, and sings what they’re thinking over and over again, in increasingly clever counterpoint. The words become meaningless through repetition, and the comedy takes flight on purely musical wings. It’s funny because it’s true, in a way that I think Wiggin grasped: a literary joke that uses music always runs up against the language’s limits at describing music; but a musical joke about music gets better the farther you push it into the absurd, because, at its core, the essence of music is so ungraspable as to be, in a wonderfully literal way, nonsensical.

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