MURDER SET TO MUSIC
by James Lincoln Warren
As my distinguished colleague Rob noted last week, murder is a prominent theme in folk music—and he didn’t even touch upon the seemingly endless list of grisly Celtic and medieval English songs of revenge, dismemberment, poison, supernatural justice, and incest, confining himself to good old-fashioned Boy Murders Girl stories. (Although in fairness, I note that he has covered many of these other songs before on this website.) I read somewhere that murder ballads are a feature of Scandinavian folk music as well.
But when Rob says that it’s about time that folk music took over this blog, as he did in reply to Leigh Lundin’s reportage on 19th-century accused murderer Tom Dula yesterday, he goes too far, especially since he knows that I am the resident classical music junky. (You may remember that Rob also recently expressed gratitude that he didn’t have to listen to classical music exclusively, which caused a cry of indignation from me here in L.A. that almost set off the San Andreas fault.) You want murder? I got your murder right here! Where it belongs. In the opera house!
Murder and suicide are staples in opera. Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which a lot of opera fanatics consider the greatest opera of all time, begins with a murder that drives all the subsequent action. The most famous tenor aria in all of opera, “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, is sung by a man soon to be driven to murder—and Enrico Caruso’s recording of it was the first million-copy selling recording ever made. And of course there’s Donizetti’s Lucia de Lammermoor and Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Rigoletto and Wagner’s Die Ring des Nibelungen and Puccini’s Tosca and Berg’s Wozzeck and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and . . . well, trust me, I could go on.
I’m sure you’ve all read Raymond Chandler’s famous quote about Dashiell Hammett: “He took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. Hammett gave murder back to the people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”
Something similar happened to murder in opera in the 1890s. It was called verismo, Italian for “realism”—Pagliacci is a perfect exemplar. Before the verismo movement, opera librettos always told larger-than-life stories, grand tragedies involving houses of nobility or legends of the gods and ancients. But beginning with Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria rusticana (1890), a new generation of composers attempted to portray life on the seedy side, showing how real people actually lived and behaved.1 (You can see the influence of verismo in Italian cinema, especially with movies like Fellini’s “La strada”.) Attempting to reproduce Mascagni’s triumph, Leoncavallo borrowed the new aesthetic.
Pagliacci tells the story of an itinerant band of commedia dell’arte performers as they prepare a performance near a small village. Canio, the leader of the troup, discovers that his wife Nedda is having an affair with a local buck named Silvio. At the end of the first act, he sings the famous aria above referenced as he puts on his make-up, because The Show Must Go On. And boy, does it ever. In the second act, the events in the play parallel what is happening in real life, and the performance ends with Canio murdering both Nedda and Silvio, then exclaiming, “La commedia è finita!” (“The comedy is ended!”).
This was a little too gritty for some audiences. A counter-school of musicians, led by the eminent composer and virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni (who although Italian was much more at home in the German tradition, owing more fealty to Weber and Wagner than to Rossini and Verdi), strongly objected to the very concept of verismo. The very reasonable question he asked was, “How can a stage production with people singing with refined, trained voices to a full orchestral accompaniment possibly be realistic?”
Well, you gotta admit, Ferruccio had a point. (Closer to home, Joss Whedon played with the same contradiction in an episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer called “Once More with Feeling”, but the fact that BtVS had a supernatural theme to begin with made it easier to pull off.) And along the same lines, Busoni favored opera that featured fantastic elements, because he thought that the very nature of opera was so artificial that to attempt realism within it was to set up a monstrous cognitive dissonance.
On the other hand, all of art is artificial—they’re even essentially the same word. A fictional story has a much more rigid structure than true experience does.
I am struck by the obvious point that murder in literature—or in opera or in folk songs—may bring you to tears, but nevertheless packs a lot softer wallop than it does is real life. Anybody who has ever dealt with the family of a murder victim knows this to be true.
And that tells me that verisimilitude in art is just another means to get the audience invested in the story, whether it’s told in a theater, a coffee house, or between the pages of a magazine. Murder will always fascinate even as it repels.
So like Canio, go ahead and laugh while your heart is breaking.
- An argument is sometimes made that Carmen (1875) is the first verismo opera, and that’s correct in a strictly chronological sense, and certainly with regard to the plot elements—but the realism first explored in Carmen was to lie dormant for fifteen years. It was Mascagni’s success that defined the new style.