Monthly Archives: February 2011

What Beethoven Means for The King’s Speech

I’ve been thinking lately about the appearance of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony in The King’s Speech–it’s the piece that plays during Bertie’s climactic reading of the speech announcing Britain’s entry into World War II.

(There’s a free version of the symphony up at the Columbia University Orchestra’s audio page, though I admit I haven’t listened to it, and of all the YouTube versions, I love this graphic version the best.)

Margo and I were entranced by the music, and we rushed home to pull out our CD of the symphony to talk it over (which was in itself part of the “meaning” of the music in the film for us, I think, the very act of personally owning the music already drawing us into a shared emotional space).

This personal excitement made me wonder, though: everyone we’ve talked to has loved the film, but how does the presence of a standard piece in the classical repertoire affect how viewers read the film? How does this piece of music affect the meaning of what we see on the screen?

So here are a couple (very quickly gathered) thoughts floating around online:

David Stabler of OregonLive.com reminds us of “the irony of hearing German music during a speech about going to war with Hitler.” But more importantly, he writes, “If ever music and intention matched, this is it.” He (rightfully, wisely) describes how the movement’s mix of rhythm and grace reflect the action on the screen. From the point of view of my work on what kinds of things music can say, this makes music out to be something whose meaning seems to work one way–that is, hearing the Beethoven cold wouldn’t make you think of King George VI’s speech, but hearing King George VI’s speech might make you think of this Beethoven piece.

And as Jeremy Helligar points out at The Faster Times, this same piece was used as recently as in 2009 in a Nicholas Cage apocalyptic flick. (Oops?) Helligar admits he was moved by The King’s Speech, but less by the story than by “that damn Ludwig van Beethoven. He gets me every time!” But he sees the monumentally effective choice of the 7th’s Allegretto as a “manipulat[ion],” so much so that he’s switched his Oscar hopes to The Black Swan.

Now, I haven’t heard of anyone else responding this way to The King’s Speech‘s music, but I think it’s a telling symptom of American’s attitudes toward emotion in music: we want to be moved–we want to be moved!–but we only want to be moved so far. Because once we cross that invisible line, we’re into the world of emotional manipulation. This is something that church-goers talk about all the time: the question of if the emotion-tugging hugeness of much contemporary worship music is God-honoring or emotion-manipulating. How far is too far, in church and at the movies? Or in terms of our earlier discussion, what will we allow music to mean, and when do we want it to stop meaning?

A quick hit in closing: I love Lisa Scwarzbaum’s reminder over at EW.com that the film relies on classical music more than in just that critical scene. She even gives us a little test: “So if/when you see it again, try to imagine what the drama would be like without Beethoven or Mozart stepping in to do heavy emotional lifting in these four crucial moments”–which she goes on to describe. She doesn’t quite take the step of pointing out that today’s technology makes it possible for amateurs to try just that; I’d love to see a “re-score these 4 scenes” contest, considering how the meaning of the scene changes each time.

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Musical Metadata, or “That reminds me of. . . .”

Yesterday, M and I enjoyed the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Pride and Prejudice, which I (as a read-it-once kind of fellow) thought faithful and intriguing and good. As I walked away, what I found myself most thinking of was a single musical moment from early in the play, a moment that has got me thinking about how music is particularly well suited to remind us of other times and places.

First, a background: one of our most-listened-to CDs is Dario Marianelli’s oscar-nominated soundtrack to the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film (with Keira Knightley). (A happy accident was when my brother, meaning to buy us the soundtrack online, bought us the piano sheet music instead, which had the effect of driving its beautiful-ness into our brains even deeper as we practiced playing it.)

During one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Elizabeth and Darcy trade barbs  during a dance, but then the other dancers literally disappear, reflecting the intensity of focus the two have for each other (starting at about 2:35 in the below clip).

The music here is “A Postcard to Henry Purcell” on the soundtrack, and for me, it’s come to have a quite particular meaning, wrapped up in associations with flirtatious banter, the surprising beginnings of attraction, the erasure of surroundings because of focus on another person, and all that. But at one moment in the play we saw yesterday, this track played during a plain old dance scene–with little more meaning than as simple diegetic music to support the dancing of the characters. To me, it means more than that, so the sudden normalness of it here felt a bit shocking.

M noticed the track too, of course, and she wasn’t sure what she thought about it either. But she reminded me of a crucial point: that the track wasn’t originally scored just by Marianelli–as its title implies, it’s a reworking of the Rondo from Henry Purcell’s incidental music for Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer. Here’s a random YouTube clip of the original; notice how much its character changes with the thicker instrumentation and quicker tempo:

Wikipedia tells me that this track was also used by Benjamin Britten in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and as the theme for a BBC miniseries, The First Churchills. Think of that: just as the use of Marianelli’s adaptation in the play felt “off” to me, like a mischaracterization of the piece’s essential personal meaning to me, others who were familiar with the Purcell track in other settings might have felt just as much dissonance when hearing it in the 2005 film!

So what? It’s a reminder of one way that the emotional content of music works. I mean, we say all the time that “music communicates emotions,” but that’s kind of vague; it’s much stronger to say, “One way that music communicates emotions is by reminding listeners of their previous exposure to it–either to particular instances of pieces played in other settings or to general qualities of the music that it shares with other pieces (i.e. genre).” And this kind of communication is both communal and personal, in that two people can be exposed to all the same settings of the music, as M and I did when we learned the 2005 soundtrack together and saw the play together, but still have different personal meanings attached to the emotions brought about when hearing the old piece in new settings.

Questions I’m left with: To what extent did the play producers mean for the 2005 score to “mean something” in the play–was it a lazy, “This will do!” or a purposeful statement? (That’s M’s question, by the way.) When is this kind of uncertain, tenuous, different-for-everyone kind of musical meaning not worth bothering with at all? In other words, if everyone is going to have different personal experiences when reminded of previous music, how can a composer or director hope to “say something” at all?

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Cracking Open Traditional Academic Prose

I’ve been drooling over Laurel Richardson’s Fields of Play (Constructing an Academic Life) this afternoon. In the section I read most carefully, she describes the process and reaction to her composition of a 5-page poem using the words from a 36-page interview transcript from a woman named “Louisa May.” It’s a beautiful piece, resonant in all the ways a poem should be. Here’s the beginning:

The most important thing
to say                           is that
I grew up in the South.
Being southern shapes
aspirations                shapes
what you think you are
and what you think you’re going to be.

(When I hear myself, my Ladybird
kind of accent on tape. I think, O Lord,
You’re from Tennessee.)

And so on. Louisa May tells the story of her divorce, pregnancy, and decision to raise a child on her own.

Richardson describes many reasons for the decision to use verse–including the admission that there are probably several reasons that she doesn’t quite know yet (147-48). In part, though, the form is apt because:

In the routine work of the sociological interview, the interview is tape-recorded, transcribed as prose, and then cut, pasted, edited, trimmed, smoothed, and snipped, just as if it were a literary text, which it is, albeit usually without explicit acknowledgment or recognition of such by its sociological constructor. (140)

She’s got me thinking about times I’ve broken the boundaries of the academic prose I was expected to write, and how those are some of my most pleasant memories as a writer. And that’s interesting–that it’s specifically boundary-crossing that I remember most, not the times when I wrote a poem in a place where a poem was expected, or a traditionally memoir-ish piece when that was expected. There’s something to the act of cracking open a seemingly closed door that appeals to me (though I think I should/could find a less violent metaphor for such a playful activity). So as an act of trying to create the memory of those activities, I’ll list them here. For example:

  • In 12th grade, I turned in some crazily obtuse poetry when asked to reflect on some of my academic writing.
  • Similarly, in a magical realism class in my 2nd year of college, I couldn’t find it in me to reflect on my semester’s writing–it was a portfolio class–in an unmagical, too-realistic way. So because I was 19, I typed up a poem in courier font with vague references to the impossibility of describing the magical in prose, which I remember included the (uncited) line from the liner notes of The Smashing Pumpkins’ The Aeroplane Flies High box set, “And don’t you forget it for one second,” to which the teacher wrote in, “I won’t.”
  • In my final semester in college, I prepared a portfolio of my best papers written throughout my four years and wrote a retrospective on what I had learned. Instead of an essay (which I think everyone else did), I pieced together a hodgepodge that is still one of my favorite pieces of writing ever, including a frame story of a witch threatening to suck my brain out with a spoon, a dramatic scene where an old Kyle talks to a young Kyle about the books he’ll like, a story about my granddaughter putting on headphones that allow her to hear the thoughts I was thinking as I drafted college essays, and a poem in iambic pentameter.
  • For my undergraduate honors thesis on Atlantis in literature, I included an introductory story about me drowning and two short stage interludes between chapters, where I tried to express different sides of my ideas about Atlantis, the uncertain complexity of my feelings and all that. Stuff like this:

Dorothy: I really like that I got to go here.

Silence. Phyllis gives no indication of hearing anything and stares directly into the audience.

I mean, it’s all kinds of stuff. But especially the name. I like that we go to Atlantis High School.

Pause.

Phyllis: It’s the same as every other high school.

Dorothy: No it’s not, it’s . . . different because of something about. . . . It’s different because it’s Atlantis. That’s cool, I don’t know.

Pause.

Phyllis: It’s not really very cool.

  • In my first course in grad school, I managed to offend James Slevin by writing another short drama between balding, full-of-themselves academics in a panel discussion and Walter Ong, back from the grave, who had some questions for them from the audience. Professor Slevin thought I meant the balding jerks to be him. Oops.
  • In a recent creative nonfiction graduate workshop I took with some brilliant MFA students and the brilliant-er Ira Sukrungruang, it was stinking hard for me to write standard memoir-fare. I kept feeling the need to play around, tell things out of order, overload the page with footnotes, make stuff up, and generally be an ass to my patient readers. Now, there was a lot of support for this buffoonery, even though I didn’t always pull it off, but it was clear that some of the better writers in the class thought my stuff was unnecessarily quirky, flashy, whatever. They were probably right.

So what am I saying? I’m not sure yet–like Richardson, I’m comfortable figuring out what I think about my writing practices after the fact. But I do know that some (all?) of my dissertation interviews are going to appear as poems. Updates shall appear as I proceed.

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