by Matthew Roy, University of California (Santa Barbara); illustration from Chapter Ten (‘Look at the Moon’) by Christi Williams
Listen to the music here, then investigate more below.
“The palace was built on the shores of the loveliest lake in the world,” and it is this unique body of water that MacDonald uses as the cite of redemption in The Light Princess. (It is interesting to note that the proper name “Lagobel” is only mentioned once in Chapter 9: “It must have been about this time that the son of a king, who lived a thousand miles from Lagobel set out to look for the daughter of a queen.” It is as if the first mention of the Prince warrants a momentary, qualitative christening of the body of water, verbally baptizing it as a site of relational “beauty.”)
The potentially redemptive effects of its waters are first observed in Chapter 8 (see Gabelman),but it is not until the introduction of the Prince and the relationship that is consummated within its waters (see McGillis on Chapter 9, Maiwald on Chapter 10, and Gray on Chapter 14) that the curse is subverted and eventually broken. The chapters that explore this curative interaction are dense with poetry, metaphor, allusion, and illusion, casting the lake as a liminal nexus wherein relational people are healed, remade, or reborn. It is this complex place that I attempt to express in the second movement of The Light Princess Suite.
The musical depiction of water is a traditional romantic trope: from the slow movement in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to Smetana’s Vltava and from Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony to almost anything by Debussy — indeed George MacDonald himself is obsessed with the metaphor (Little Diamond’s river songs in At the Back of the North Wind are a good example). In my own musical representation of Lagobel I sought to highlight the elemental nature of water, by distancing it from regularized, human-dictated order (see the commentary on
‘The King and Queen’), and by expressing its personality through suggestible yet elusive patterns. The ostinato (repeated musical figure) that begins and undergirds the piece presents steady and regular “waves” of notes, yet the wandering, colorful harmonies (hints of jazz, Debussy, or Zaderatsky) remain ungrounded, unpredictable, and ambiguous. In juxtaposition to this elemental soundscape, a single, lyrical melody appears. Here is a reference to the human, to the singing voice (the Prince’s?), to an inward emotion outwardly expressed (the sighing motive that begins each reiteration of the descending phrase). The interaction between these two distinct musical entities allows for a wealth of multivalent interpretations.
The Prince’s beach-side song (Lorelei in reverse?) in Chapter 10 provides an excellent interpretive lens through which to consider the dynamic interaction between “water” and “human”: phrases like “plashing low, soft and slow,” “stream behind her,” “cling about her, waters blue; part not from her,” and “lap me round,” speak to the kinetic, temporal, and mutual yet incongruous nature of these concomitant musical elements. At the second phrase (at 0:41) another melodic voice appears, now in the bass, a call and response rising up from under the shimmering “water.” This mirror effect suggests the reflective visual effects of water in general and references the poetic description of the characters’ viewing of the pleasurable moon in Chapter 10, “one of their great delights,” in particular.
The third iteration of the descending wave (at 1:22) is derailed, trailing off into the depths of the piano. While the water is indeed working its cure, MacDonald clearly points out in Chapter 10 that the Princess has a long way yet to go. Various musical effects contribute to this unfinished state, such as the sighing melody entering at a higher key (the key I will later use for ‘The Prince’), a sequence of searching and wandering melodies in the bass, and disjunct flashes in the upper register, “as if she were trying to understand what he meant”. Suddenly the undulating play of the “water” stops (at 1:59). The last phrase hovers in palpable stillness. Perhaps the Princess has risen back up to her chamber. Perhaps it is the soundtrack of the Prince’s retrospective dream as he lies upon his bed of withered leaves. Perhaps the piece itself has risen to “the bottom of a deeper and bluer lake than theirs” and the moon itself hums the tune. It’s hard to tell…