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SANDRA CORSE From Narrative to Music: Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw Musical and narrative structures are strikingly similar. Both take place in time, both depend upon the procession of meanings which unfold before the reader or listener, both depend upon the reader or listener participating in the process of unfolding meaning, and both are organized in layers, what Leonard Mayer calls 'hierarchical structures" and Roland Barthes refers to as the '''layeredness'' [feuillete) of the discourse.' Barthes goes on to describe the literary text, metaphorically, as an onion, 'a construction of layers (or levels, or systems) whose body contains, finally, no heart, no kernel, no secret, no irreducible principle, nothing except the infinity of its own envelopes - which envelop nothing other than the unity of its own surface." Barthes could very well be describing music, and indeed he does often use musical metaphors in discussing narrative forms. Musical analysis has always recognized the layeredness of the musical text; recent theorists such as Meyer and Heinrich Schenker have developed models which emphasize this layeredness more emphatically than those previously in use. These models have shown how closely related narrative and musical structures are (the major difference, of course, is the degree of referentiality possible or useful in narrative and musical forms). These similarities often almost disappear in the actual perception of an art: our experience in reading a novel or listening to a piece of music is more of differences than of similarities. However, when the two forms are combined, as in an opera, structural similarities become more obvious. They are very important to the composer, who can use them in order to create meaning; he often attempts to express meanings inherentin his text as much as possible through musical means, especially since a libretto is necessarily a much abbreviated and reduced form of literature. Benjamin Britten's operatic setting of The Turn of the Screw is an instructive example of the correlations between the literary and musical text. Brittenis a composer who does his best work in forms which combine music and words. He is always careful to retain the essential character of the literary text, and in his music we find the interplay between text and music developed to an unusual degree. The extent to which music may express meaning is, however, problematic . Leonard Meyer has identified three major positions which theoreticians and aestheticians have taken in regard to the question of meaning in UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 51., NUMBER 2, WINTER 198112 0042-024718210100-0161-0174$01.5°/0 C UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS 162 SANDRA CORSE music. For one group the formal·design - its symmetry, balance, and proportion- is felt to encompass the total meaning of music, and grasping the form of a piece of music is equivalent to understanding its meaning. The second group, what he calls the 'kinetic-syntactic' theorists, places meaning in the function ofa musical event: understandinga pieceofmusic for these theorists depends on following its processes of tension and release, implication and realization. For some of these theorists this process evokes or symbolizes the forms of human emotions.3 The third group holds that the meaning ofmusic lies in its referential function, in the ability of a piece of abstract music to signify events, objects, or moods in the objective, real world.' Although these theories concerning meaning in music are usually regarded as antithetical, in actuality all hold some validity - the degree depending more on the style or geme of the piece of music under discussion than on the strength of the theory. Britten directs us to all three theoreticalmodels in orderto emphasize, augment, and sometimesundercut the meaning of the text of his opera. Formal meaning is frequently not important in opera, but Britten, following the example of Berg's Wozzeck, chose to cast The Turn ofthe Screw in a traditional musical form not usually associated with opera: the theme and variations. The choice was not arbitrary; the form does serve a function in transposing the narrative to music. The theme-and-variationform suggests the emphasison processin James's fiction. For James reality is a process of discovery, and his finest characters are continually involved in discovering, through their sensitivity...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 161-174
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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