Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Music and Literature

Part One

Opera in Literature

“They played at hearts as other children might play at ball; only, as it was really their two hearts that they flung to and fro, they had to be very, very handy to catch them, each time, without hurting them.”   ― Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

I have always loved music as well as literature.  These two art forms intersect in many ways, two of which I would like to discuss.  First is the presence of music in novels.  A notable example  can be found in the opening pages of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence.  This is heralded by the first sentence of the novel:
"On an January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York."  This setting is used to introduce the protagonist of the novel, Newland Archer, and provides the narrator with a way to highlight his dilettantism since "thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization."   
Also important to the story is the Opera itself and the aria that is being sung which foreshadows themes that will be important as the novel develops.  It is this use of music, Gounod's opera in particular, that provides some of the depth of meaning for which, in this case, Edith Wharton is known.

This is merely one example of which many can be found.  Two of my favorite authors, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust, use music effectively in their novels.   In Mann's case his novel Doctor Faustus is imbued with and depends upon the immersion in music and its effect on Adrian Leverkuhn.  One of Proust's many characters  from In Search of Lost Time is Vinteuil, a composer and violinist of note whose famous sonata takes on the importance of a character unto itself.

The Age of Innocence  is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s.  It centers on the  impending marriage of an upper-class couple, Newland Archer and May Welland.  And the introduction of a woman, Ellen Olenska, plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s' New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for her earlier, more brutal and critical novel, The House of Mirth. Wharton's attention to the mores of the upper class includes details based on her own experience.  But her insights into the psychology of the characters, especial Newland and Ellen were what I found most interesting.  The attitudes of society towards Ellen and the regrets of an aging man for what might have been have seldom been limned as well as in Miss Wharton's story.   The novel was lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and this, combined with the social tragedy, earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize — the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. Edith Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she lived in that world, and saw it change dramatically by the end of World War I. The title may be read as an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society, when compared to its inward machinations.  This is the best of her novels in my estimation, although the bittersweet The House of Mirth is my personal favorite.

(To be continued)


Lory said...

Great topic! "Opera in literature" reminds me of The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies, the only novel I can think of that is actually about the creation of an opera. I would love to read more if you know of them.

Brian Joseph said...

Great post James. I also love both art forms.

I also enjoy it When authors use music to enhance stories or to say something.

In addition to the examples that you cited Hermann Hesse attempted to tie the art forms together in several of his novels. As I recall In Steppenwolf in particular he tried to say something profound about human existence in the context of great artists such as Mozart.

James said...

Lory and Brian,

Thanks for your comments. I plan to post further comments on this topic including Literature in music (Opera) and more examples of music in Literature. The references you provided are appreciated.