By Matthew Roy,
I composed ‘The Light Princess Suite’ as a collection of six short pieces for solo piano, each intended to portray characters, scenes, or concepts from George MacDonald’s fairy tale, The Light Princess. The composition participates in a broad, historically grounded musical category: the character piece (Charakterstück), a musical genre which had its initial flowering in the nineteenth century, and was prized for its brevity, expressivity, and often, for its programmatic possibilities. The idea of program music begs one of the perennial nineteenth–century questions: how do musical and verbal languages truly interact? MacDonald himself invites an answer. While establishing an aesthetic argument for his fairy tales in the essay ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, he declares that “where [a writer’s] object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it.” Music’s suggestive and ineffable qualities act as a nexus through which subjective interpretations can come to life. My hope is that through the musicological observations of my own compositional work MacDonald’s tale can be refracted through a different lens, revealing its imaginative currency across artistic disciplines. (At the same time, this is not to say that my interpretation is necessarily definitive. Listen to the music yourself and “let it work on that part of [you] for whose it exists.”)
In reference to the opening sentence of MacDonald’s fairy tale (see Chettle on Chapter 1), the opening character piece entitled“The King and Queen” begins with a musical gesture redolent of royalty and of beginnings. The opening fanfare, recognizable by its dotted rhythms and trumpet-like flourishes, simultaneously references 1) feudal power (brass fanfare was regularly employed to make audible a ruler’s military strength in times of war and of peace), and 2) the overture or prelude (an instrumental introduction or “curtain-raiser” meant to signal the commencement of a musical performance, as well as the entrance of the king or sponsoring ruler). Yet, for all the associated pomp, the fanfare is stunted and feels anticlimactic (music for “a little king with a great throne”), speaking to MacDonald’s comical and subversive treatment of monarchical authority throughout the story.
Throughout the suite, characters are musically portrayed through their relationship to traditional dance rhythms. This factor functions at two levels: 1) by establishing a sense of “correctness” predicated by metric and phrase regularity, and 2) by symbolizing the historical and political worlds in which these dances were codified and standardized. The music for the King is the most concrete example of this. His music stresses a consistent quadruple meter and regular four-bar phrases, establishing a sound world of order, propriety, and restraint. These elements, in turn, are meant to reference the “gavotte”, a French dance integrated into court societies during the 17th century. Norbert Elias demonstrates how within these societies “etiquette” (a concept including everything from speech and dance to fashion and proxemics) made visible political, social, and ethical pressures by instantiating a hierarchical, monarch-dominant structure. As a metrically correct gavotte, the King’s music aspires to an ordered and prestigious society (“gravity”), yet he constantly betrays his insecurity through his petulant, self-conscious, wrathful, and oblivious personality (see Gabelman on Chapter 3). This conflict is depicted musically by weakening the propriety of the gavotte with increasingly awkward melodic and harmonic twists (suggestions of twentieth–century idioms, jazz and Debussy, do nothing to further an absolutist propaganda).
While MacDonald’s King staunchly (even if ridiculously) abides by monarchical authority, the Queen threatens to exceed the bounds of propriety (see Neophytou on Chapter 5). Musically, she does not comply as readily to the “dance step–power structure” analogy; somewhat suggestive of a Baroque “minuet,” her music contains regular four-bar phrases and a steady triple meter, but a more contemplative character is created by the use of the sustain pedal, a colorful accompanying ostinato, and meandering, somewhat rhapsodic melodies. The aural effect is redolent of the 19th–century Charakterstück, an era antithetical to the external representative politics of court etiquette and expressive of a more modern interiority.
This tension comes to a head in the last portion of the piece when the King’s gavotte finds itself brusquely interrupted by a return of the Queen’s minuet. For two bars the melodies coexist in a tense counterpoint before the King reasserts his musical dominance with two accented chords. With monarchical and patriarchal authority re-established, the opening fanfare returns, but slightly modified (brusquer, louder, rhythmically imbalanced), as if “in the tone of one who concludes an argument in which he has had only imaginary opponents, and in which, therefore, he has come off triumphant.”
MacDonald, George. The Complete Fairy Tales. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.