[As was suggested last week in News and Notes, the first-night critics did less than justice to the music of Zuleika. In this article the Director of Music for the B.B.C.’s. Midland Region discusses it in greater detail.]
An agile composer setting out to write a Musical Comedy soon after 1900 addressed himself to a straightforward and uncomplicated task, provided the gift of nostalgic melody, catchy rhythm, and lively orchestration was his. For in Lionel Monckton, Sidney Jones and the rest he had excellent models, and the Musical Comedy genre was stuff and marrow of the popular culture of the day. Since then, came again the Americans, and “Oklahoma” took the place of “The Geisha” or “The Arcadians.”
Mr Tranchell’s task has been neither straightforward nor uncomplicated. For three solutions are open to the librettist and composer who dare the ironic pleasures of Max Beerbohm’s novel. They can either use the text as a peg on which to hang a witty, satiric, trenchantly contemporary “Musical” of the type staged by the A.D.C. in the nineteen twenties. Or they can clothe Edwardian vocal conventions in the smart Instrumental and rhythmic dresses and techniques of to-day. Or they can create Edwardian pastiche, limiting themselves, at any rate in form and instrumentation, to the musical horizon of those days. The third method appears to have been chosen, and both the strengths and the weaknesses of the music arise partly from that choice.
Good tunes, agile tunes, abound. So do tempting and catchy rhythms. Yet I was more conscious of this abundance when I read over the score alter the performance, than I was in the theatre. “City of Repose,” with its saucy cadential refrain, “Zuleika’s Travels,” with its nostalgic twists and turns, the delightful Trio for Katie, Mrs Batch, and Noaks, in which a nice contrapuntal marriage appears to have been arranged between Jeppesen and Hindemith (Britten not absit) —these as I rehearsed them in my mind after the show with the help of a score, recalled favourites like “Freud and the Bedmakers,” “Seaweed,” or “Liberty Hall.” Why were they less successful “on location?” The answer seems to lie partly in the thorny business of musical comedy orchestration—which is essentially pit orchestration—as support for the voice, and partly in this century’s widening rhythmic horizon.
Puccini’s vocal line rests on surging string tone. “The Geisha,” musically the most successful, because the best scored, of all the classics of Musical Comedy, rests on expansive and telling theatre orchestration. That is where Peter Tranchell has been less successful in realising for us the expansive days of George Edwardes, Daly’s, and the rest.
We had handy singers in plenty, especially in John Pardoe and Gordon Clyde, but they needed a more luxurious instrumental cushion to support their voices. The musical comedy style of orchestral playing is difficult for the new generation of orchestral players, for they graduate through Sherborne and the National Youth Orchestra where the older player graduated through the café trio and the silent films. No wonder that many a good symphonic player is defeated by the style of “San Toy.” Much of the scoring in Zuleika is “straight,” which invites “straight” playing: and the straight, or concert orchestra, style of orchestral playing is scarcely the key to theatre music. And as to rhythmic resources (here the second half of Zuleika was more interesting than the first): if you confine yourself to those of 1910 out of purism, your main vehicle for nostalgic evocation is the Waltz. Nowadays we have grown to expect more than a good waltz or two, for the Tango, the Blues, and so on, are second nature.
Perhaps, then, the second of the three methods propounded for the composition of a Musical Comedy, is a more attractive one, especially for the composer who must write for a theatre where the orchestra pit is only partially sunk. Composers in the eighteenth century used the tools, technique, and occasions of their own day—Mozart wrote one of his finest pieces d’occasion for the obsequies of two Masonic worthies, and Bach used, or did without, instrumental or keyboard accompaniment to his Motets as occasion and local talent suggested. Does not Zuleika offer a delightful opportunity for the combination of Edwardian vocal ways with the instrumental sounds of to-day? The theatre orchestra of to-day, with its chorus of saxophones and versatile “kitchen” department, might be more specialised and more expensive than the occasion makes possible. But with a foundation of two pianos, with an accomplished pair of percussionists, perhaps a squeeze box and a harmonica, and for good measure if you like an electronic organ as well—so we might bedeck the Edwardians’ vocal line with new, gay, intriguing, instrumental clothes.
A pleasant thought, and along that way the road may lie. But for the present: Messrs Ferman and Tranchell and their talented company have given us a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment, rightly designed for their own audience at home. The vivacious charm of Patricia Stark, the forthright singing of Mr Pardoe and his excellent chorus, and the perfectly timed clowning of Messrs Woodthorpe and Smurthwaite—these remain for your visiting reviewer, Sir, a memorable part of Cambridge, City of Repose, 1954.