“Quoth the Raven: Nevermore.”

August 4, 2009

When we think of the works of Edgar Allen Poe we think of drama, darkness, crows – “it was a dark and stormy night” is the right atmosphere, and if not a cemetery, where better to recount his work  than between the stone walls of the basement of a deconsecrated church…! St. Brigid’s ‘below’ was a perfect set up for the evening’s performance:  with the feel of an underground literary or drama club, it created just the right mood for an evening of Poe interpreted through an incredibly effective collaboration between narrator Tom Allen, soprano Patricia O’Callaghan, harpist Lori Gemmell, Mike Ross on piano and the Penderecki String Quartet.  For me, Poe shall ‘nevermore’ feel complete without the music inspired by his words.

Overall, the staging of the pieces presented was brilliant.  For example, the opening of “Alone” began with music more appropriate to a happy ballade and the comical singing created dark humour in the context of the melancholy words of the poem. This entrée gave way to a solitary Patricia O’Callaghan emoting in a sad, blues voice, scarcely moving from her fixed position, and sweeping up the audience in the power of the words amplified by the colour of her voice and the emotion in her eyes.  The contrast was powerful and effective.  “The Raven” was set to music which provided a vivid atmosphere to the narration of the poem, spinning an aura of nostalgia and loneliness punctuated by special effects to depict the curtains blowing in the wind (glissandi on the harp), tapping at the chamber door (tremolos on the strings followed by sudden stops), dissonances to create a sense of foreboding (the raven as a bad omen) and finally closing with a dreamlike quality and final prolonged chord. I particularly loved the way the narration fit the rhythm of the music without accenting any words, and the fit of the poem to the music felt natural, as though it was always meant to be presented in this way.

Before the final piece, a brief summary was made of Poe’s life. What intrigued me in this information interlude was the fact that Claude Debussy, an impressionist French composer, was a lover of Poe’s work, and particularly of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which he wanted to score for an opera, but which he declined (having had second thoughts) when he was given a commission. The audience was then introduced to the final piece of the program, composed by Andre Caplet, on Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death”.

For those who haven’t read the story, “The Masque of the Red Death” is set during the time of the Red Death, an illness that caused the victim to bleed through his pores and die within half an hour. To avoid this, Prince Prospero takes 1000 people into his castellated abbey, and seals the doors so that no one can come in or go out, hoping to cheat the Red Death. Six months into their quarantine, Prince Prospero senses that his guests are restless, so he throws a masquerade ball. Everyone is to dress grotesquely for the event, and the party takes place in seven separate rooms, each a different colour. The last room is very gory – furnished with black velvet, it has a stained glass window that casts a blood red light on the room. In this room there is also a large ebony clock, and every time it strikes the hour all the party guests and musicians stop and listen, frightened of its sound. Late in the evening, a new guest arrives at the party – he is dressed as a victim of the Red Death. Prince Prospero orders his guests to unmask him so they may hang him in the morning, but everyone’s too afraid to go near him. Prospero goes to stab the man, who turns toward him, and Prospero falls dead to the ground with red spots all over his skin. The party guests, in a rage, throw off the costume of the interloper and discover that there is no one wearing the costume – it was the Red Death itself that came to kill them, and one by one they fall dead.

Caplet’s composition for string quartet and harp is done without narration but Poe’s story line is observed. We hear when the guests’ tension mounts as the atmosphere feels not quite right: the strings play slow, eerie, dissonant chords, as the harp plays lower register runs, indicating the fear of the guests. We can already sense the feeling of entrapment. The piece becomes more festive, goes into a bit of a swing (it is a party, after all), although still in a minor key (this is not a happy tale); but it is broken by the harp, playing the role of the clock, instilling fear in the parts of the other instruments. The music begins again, hesitant and frightened, but then grows into a frenzy. Finally, at the end of the piece, the clock (harp) strikes again, and everything quiets down, a final chord strikes, and the music dies (as do the party guests). This was absolutely magnificent – I still have the melody of the clock in my head!

This performance was a tremendous success, and I very much hope they do something like this again next year. Perhaps a musical performance of “The Fall of the House of Usher”…?

Lindsay Bryden, flutist

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