Friday, July 23, 2010

Joseph Machlis; Thinking Turandot

In a novel about musicians called "57th Street," author George Selcamm (pen-name for Joseph Machlis 1906-1998) established two central characters who are often set against one another in contrast. Margo Scholtz is a soprano from Poughkeepsie new to, and fascinated by, the NYC musical scene, and Bob Conrad is son of the pianist Judith Conrad, who has grown up in musical society even though he himself is not a musician.

Bringing them together and pulling them apart is one of the central threads of the novel. Margo's career begins to show signs of flourishing and near the end of the novel she is singing Liù in a performance of Turandot:


(Cynthia Haymon as Liù in 1987)

"A dark tremolo in the cellos [0:10-0:30] ushered in the melody in E-flat minor [0:31] that Puccini marked "con dolorosa esperssione;" slowly the crowd fell back, leaving Liù alone in the center of the stage, a slight figure bent forward in an attitude of humility. She sang of her secret love that sought only to give and demand nothing in return, and the music lifted her sorrow to the ideal plane of art, transfiguring it, so that she was not only little Liù singing of her prince, but everyone who had ever loved in vain, who had suffered and been defeated."

This elusive tune floats by using the raised 6th scale degree (C natural) in the first phrase [0:36], then the lowered 6th and 7th scale degree [0:46] and [0:57] in the next two phrases, which darkens them considerably. The raised 6th and raised 7th scale degree [1:02] makes the phrase "You will love him too" catch fire.

Bob, who is in the audience, hears this music. "He winced when he remembered how unworthy he had been of her love. Yet what had passed between them belonged to another period of their lives and was inevitable in terms of what the then were."

Margo, "outstretched on the stage, knew she had conquered. The long upward climb was over; the promise had been fulfilled.

Here is another view of life being opera, this time both happening in fiction written by a musician.

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