Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Brittenish Invasion

I promised a little more tune theft this week - unlike Mozart's stealing from J.C. Bach stealing from Gazzaniga, we now return to a 'classical' work which seems to anticipate something from a more 'popular' genre. After The Marriage of Figaro, Britten's Albert Herring is probably the opera for which I have the most affection. If West Side Story and Candide are fantastic musicals which seem operatic in their musical ambition, Albert Herring is the opera which reminds me most of musical theater in its sophisticated theatricality and bouncy tunes.

The first time poor Albert's name is mentioned, we hear a familiar sounding musical idea. Here's Superintendent Budd nominating the unlikely Albert to be May "King." I can't remember if I made the following connection on first hearing, but I do remember my mom saying right off that the "Albert Herring" motif reminded her of this. That's right, the first time we meet the name "Albert Herring," we also meet something akin to "Meet George Jetson!"

The tunes aren't exactly the same, but when Lady Billows finally consents to the preposterous idea of a King of the May, she sings the Jetsons' tune exactly. Obviously, what ties all these variants together is the use of a leading tone on the penultimate pitch. Here they all are:

[By the way, notice that the response of the ensemble to Budd is almost exactly the same as Strauss's famous Till Eulenspiegel tune which means, yes, it's a variation on Leonard Bernstein's beloved "How Dry I Am" kernel.]

But my favorite connection is yet to come. Listen again to the end of this clip where Lady Billows leads off the fabulous "May King" fugue. Now listen to it the way I always find myself hearing it. (In this case, it's not the tune, but the character of the accompaniment that looks ahead.) No wonder I think of Albert Herring as being halfway to Broadway!

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