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Reuven Tsur

Varlaam's and Misail's Cosmic Cataclysm
(Work in Progress)

Varlaam's and Misail's melody at their entrance in the Kromy Forest scene has a queer effect, to say the least. For decades I have been haunted by a strange feeling concerning this music. The nearest approximation to chracterise this queer effect would be something between the "apocalyptic" and the "grotesque". In recent years I have been trying to piece together an explanation for this impression. A grotesque effect is a sense of confusion and emotional disorientation generated, among other things, by some incongruity, such as the co-presence of the laughable and something that is incompatible with the laughable: what arouses pity or fear or disgust, for instance. The easiest way to account for such an effect would be by appealing to the contents. However, such a quality can be perceived in the music itself, before understanding the words sung. Nonetheless, the semantic elements and dramatic context too may contribute to this quality.

The co-presence of what is laughable and what is incompatible with it is suggested, for instance, by a letter that Mussorgsky wrote in November 1877 and in which he recalled how the two mendicant monks Varlaam and Missail had provoked "laughter" only until such time as they "appeared in the scene with the 'vagabonds' [i.e., the Kromy Forest Scene], for only then did people realise what dangerous animals these apparently ridiculous figures are". Musorgsky may have referred, e.g., to the episode in which the two monks incite the mob to hang the two Polish Jesuites, for being Poles and Roman Catholics.

There is, perhaps, a point when these two conflicting perceptions (the laughable and the dangerous) are balanced. Accordingly, the grotesque quality would be experienced only by those members of the audience who perceive those opposite qualities simultaneously. The text attached to the music is awe-inspiring, even apocalyptic. In this immediate context, it is the apocalyptic element that represents what is incompatible with the laughable.

VARLAAM and MISSAIL (to the right, offstage)
The sun and moon have gone dim,
the stars from heaven have fallen,
the universe hath trembled at Boris's brutal sin.
Strange beasts are abroad,
begetting others just as horrid,
eating human bodies,
in praise of Boris's sin.
God's people suffer and are tortured,
tormented by Boris's lackeys,
prompted by Hell's power,
to the glory of a satanic throne.

Now Boris's and his lackeys' cruelty may be great. Nonetheless, this apocalyptic vision is out of keeping, and may have a comic element in it. But the music too does something to the text, reinforcing the transformation of awe to grotesque (at least, in some performances, such as the one conducted by André Cluytens [EMI CMS 567877 2]).

Listen to Varlaam's and Misail's melody at their entrance

click here

In his illuminating discussion of "Intonation and Music", Fónagy (2000: 125126) points out that a radically narrowed pitch range and a frozen melodic line may suggest anguish in music and intonation, and mentions Varlaam's and Misail's entrance in the Kromy Forest scene of Boris Godunov. I suppose he refers to the repeated tam-ta-ta, tam-ta-ta, tee-tee-tam melody and rhythm, which display both a radically narrowed pitch range and a frozen melodic line. I would add that the discrete, emphatic, "steady-state" sounds generate a solemn, perhaps somber quality. The two are singing in unison for some time, further simplifying the effect. At the same time, the musical thread played by the strings (and later by the choir) displays "a lively pace, rapid changes, and sudden rises from low/mid to high level" which, according to Fónagy, may be typically associated with Joy.

Harai Golomb points out (personal communication) a diatonic effect too, that is, relating to a major or minor musical scale. The term "church mode" refers to one of eight scales prevalent in mediaeval music each utilizing a different pattern of intervals and beginning on a different tone. The major and minor scales (which, as we know, differ in the order of the whole steps and the half steps) are just two of them. In later Western music of the past few hundred years only the major and minor scales prevailed; we have mental schemata for handling only them. Departure from these scales is usually perceived as devious, out of the way. Varlaam's and Misail's frozen melodic formula "tam-ta-ta, tam-ta-ta, tee-tee-tam" provides an illuminating instance of this. It displays a conspicuous minor-scale tendency; but the two (slightly higher) tee-tee sounds belong to neither a major, nor a minor scale, but to one of the other "church modes" (the "Dorian"). The effect of such a departure is strikingly out of the ordinary, incongruous, reinforcing whatever grotesque or apocalyptic elements present.

Though I am usually working within the Bartlett tradition which gives great priority to cognitive schemata, Cognitive Poetics as I understand it demanded to go one step further. I was wondering whether the effect discussed here is merely a matter of "past experience" producing schemata, or are there some inherent reasons for the unsettling effect discerned in Varlaam's and Misail's tune. In fact, I have been wondering for long whether it was merely an historical accident that only two of the eight church modes prevailed in Western musical tradition. Bill Benzon, who commented in some detail on my foregoing argument, provided the missing information, without knowing of these musings of mine. The important point, he says, about the diatonic system of Western music—which Meyer hammers on—is that it is organized around the tonic, about the drive to the tonic. The tonic is more than simply the bottom note of the scale, it's home base. Modal music isn't like that. The sense of "home base" is not nearly so strong. In this way, I submit, the "modal lapse" may contribute both to the disorienting effect of the grotesque, and to the apocalyptic element in it (the element incompatible with the laughable). Given the apocalyptic nature of the lyrics, says Benzon, what better musical device to use than one that takes you outside the diatonic system, the system that provides the orientation grid of the mundane sonic world? At the same time, it may suggest some Mediaeval, ecclesiastic atmosphere to the modern listener.

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