‘The Light Princess Suite’: No. 5. “The Prince”

by Matthew Roy, University of California (Santa Barbara).  Illustration by Christi Williams  (from Chapter Nine, ‘Put Me In Again’).

 “‘How do you know I am a prince, princess?’ said the prince. ‘Because you are a very nice young man, prince,’ said the princess.” (MacDonald, Chapter 10) Somehow, just like the story’s heroine, I recognized the Prince from the start. This fifth movement of The Light Princess Suite was essentially complete almost five years ago and the early sketches reveal an amazing lack of rewriting or creative vacillation. After having considered musicalizing the Prince as a heroic hymn in the dance rhythm of a courtly Sarabande (he is royalty after all), I vehemently crossed it all out, writing, “Bah! Much, much, much too serious! He’s in high school, he tells puns, he’s gallant!” From that moment I wrote the piece essentially in a single breath. After a few days it was done and it has not changed in any substantial way since then. This essentially painless creative process (compare with the laborious act of “chiseling” that accompanied the composition of “The Princess”) highlights my understanding of the Prince as a relatively straightforward character. Granted, MacDonald cannot long resist the urge to problematize our generic expectations. The Prince is colored with irony and subversion; even his most Proppian of actions are shaded with snarky narratorial asides. But overall I see in the Prince a clear character in possession of a groundedness of soul that remains steadfast despite the near weightlessness of the Lake, the enigma of the Princess, the pontification of the King, and even death by drowning.

Adapted excerpt from the manuscript of 'The Prince'. Edited by Christine Chettle.

Adapted excerpt from the manuscript of ‘The Prince’. Edited by Christine Chettle.

Through all of this he may be frightened, or bemused, or confused, but never does he lose sight of his self, his “holy self” or “true self” as MacDonald’s entry for December 20 in A Book of Strife in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul (1880) puts it: ‘My holy self, thy pure ideal, lies/Calm in thy bosom, which it cannot leave…’ I like to think that my music strives for that type of self-assurance and steadfastness. It could also be because I have had it with me for so long and have grown to hear it a certain way. Here is what I hear:

  • The slow and steady rhythm does not come from any type of courtly dance, but rather is meant to suggest a more fantastical genre known as “legend,” depicting ancientness, myth, heroism (see Amy Beach’s Scottish Legend).
  • The piece spends a good deal of time in the lower register, an aspect meant to contrast with the Princess’ gravity-less treble-clef flitting.
  • The first theme initially concentrates around a small group of pitches then rises slowly upward before regrouping. This theme periodically returns, but always varied, sometimes even diminished to a statement of the first eight notes or even the first three. Apparently, the Prince knows who he is, whether a horseless wanderer, a shoeblack, or a smitten lover.
  • A darker section occupies the middle of the piece, filled with Makemnoit-like “crunches,” one tip of the hat to a favorite composer of mine, and a trickling cascade of notes, whose main function is to attempt to sweep away all musical coherence. The object is to create a sense of confusion and obscurity…
  • …to be rent asunder by the moment of eucatastrophe! (see Grey on Chapter 14). Listen for it. You can’t miss it…
  • What you might miss is the Prince’s initial theme in octaves in the bass with the creepy crunchiness moiling over it, before the final climax. I’m not sure how I see the reconciliation of the Prince’s music with that of the cascading, confusing water. Perhaps it is the ministrations of the Princess’ nurse, a “wise woman” and Makemnoit’s foil in Chapter 14 as he wavers between life and death. Perhaps water has always been confusing, ever since the wonderment of Lagobel. Perhaps they are the beginnings of the Princess’ tears, shed for him.
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