‘The Light Princess Suite’: No. 6. “…gravitas…”

by Matthew Roy, University of California Santa Barbara

Listen to the music and investigate more below:

The final chapter of The Light Princess is a moment of overflow. Despite all of MacDonald’s generic subversions and narrational asides, he still crafts his fairy tale with a happy ending. But there is nothing pithy about this “happy ever after”or merely structural about this “liquidation of the initial misfortune.”Rather MacDonald brings all of his most dazzling literary imagery to bear, releasing emotional, moral, and symbolic tensions that have been building throughout the whole story. It is as though as the rain/tears refill the dry lake all the relational intimacy and freedom that Lagobel represented now spill over and “inundate the country”(MacDonald, Chapter 15). Treasures fall from the sky. The lake is brimful. The Princess is healed. The Prince revives. Babies laugh. Generosity reigns. “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea”(Isaiah 11:9).

I struggled long to find the right music for this rich scene. It needed the movement and magic of rain. It also needed to express the jubilation of human connection and redemption. And if possible it would need to somehow express the redemptive reunion of the Prince and the Princess with all the promise of their mutual growth and development. Furthermore, all these aspects would need to be harmoniously synthesized within the piece, providing a final chapter to the piano suite as a whole.

For months I was only able to develop isolated sketches. I was very much inspired by the slow movement from Prokofiev’s Sonata 9 with its juxtaposition of hymn-like tenderness (11:14) with joyous activity (13:23) . I eventually settled on something serene and simple. I’m very happy with it. Here’s my breakdown:

1. The name gravitas is the only title that is not taken from MacDonald’s book itself. The double ellipses suggest contemplation that is both retrospective and prospective. The Latin word is very rich, with connotations of “heaviness,”“weight,”“dignity,”and “vulnerability.”

 2. The piece builds gradually. It begins with a rhythmically free pattern of two notes (dripping tears, raindrops, an ellipsis) that grows into an atmospheric ostinato. Lush melodic fragments augment the sound, layered gradually and creating a repeated four-bar phrase.

 LP6 illustration

 3. The first climax comes about after an increase in rhythmic activity, climbing up into a brief moment of stasis before tumbling down (à la the Princess learning to walk) into a thick, but I think luxuriant, chord.

 4. After taking a breath, the second half of the piece begins. Marked “processing”, the original four-bar phrase calmly emerges, slowly increasing in dynamics. As it rises in volume, the melody I used in The Prince rings out, followed triumphantly by the waltz theme from The Princess, now stately but joyful. I particularly love this moment and it gives me skin chills every time I play it. (I consider that a composer victory!)

 5. Following the procession of the Prince and Princess (by this time she has obviously learned how to walk),  the music ripples up into a final, celestial, bell-like rendition of the four-bar phrase. As the piece closes, the last thing we hear is a lone, quietly-rhapsodic melody (compare with the beginning of the piece) that plays a fragment from the melody I employed in the second piece, Lagobel.

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