Monday, December 10, 2007

Offenbach in the offing

Late last fall, I was inspired to write a kind of fake operatic aria. I had been in the library watching a DVD of Eugene Onegin for my Opera course, and when I came outside I was so full of the beauty of Tchaikovsky's melodies and the crisp-crystalline night that I had to sing about it. Because arias ought to be in a foreign language, I began composing in French. I wanted some introductory lines about the cold night, but the first part of the song that came to me was a big, swooping, romantic chorus:
Mais j'ai un coeur amoureux
Qui brûle comme le feu!
Et la brise froide
Touche ma peau
Mais moi, j'ai chaud!

(But I have a loving heart
That burns like fire!
And the cold breeze
Touches my skin
But I'm warm!)
The lines preceding this section did not come as easily, either in their words or their music. But eventually I came up with this, set to a gently rocking melody that contrasted with the grander music I had already written:
La terre est sous une couche de givre
La nuit tombe si tôt
Aucune feuille ne peut plus vivre
Les branches rassemblent aux os

(The earth is beneath a layer of frost
Night falls so soon
No leaf can live any longer
The branches look like bones)
Soon after, though, I discovered a Plagiarism Mystery! I went to see a play and during one of the scene changes they played an aria whose tune sounded very similar to my "La terre est sous une couche" tune. Moreover, I felt like I'd heard the song before--that it was very famous and I'd subconsciously recalled it while writing my own song. But I couldn't really go up to the director afterwards and say "What aria was that?" I figured, if it was so famous, I'd eventually discover what it was. And indeed, I heard it on TV or in a movie another time over the past year; but I couldn't make out any of the lyrics or find other clues.

Last night, though, I finally figured out the answer. I'd ripped off the "Barcarolle" from The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach!

Hei-Kyung Hong and Jennifer Larmore singing the "Barcarolle." The first part, from where the mezzo starts singing to when the soprano joins in, is virtually identical to my song. Fortunately they differ after that!

I'm pretty embarrassed now, since it's a very well-known piece of music. But it's also beautiful, and it adds evidence to my new theory that Offenbach is a better composer than anyone ever gives him credit for. He had a great skill for writing catchy melodies that also perfectly suit the mood and the text. For instance, the Barcarolle is about a "belle nuit, o nuit d'amour" (beautiful night of love), and so is the song that I wrote. The music sounds like nighttime--I can't explain it any other way--it simply cries to be set to lyrics about nighttime and love, not about daytime.

Since discovering Natalie Dessay's rendition(s) of "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" I've had the song stuck in my head frequently, despite not being able to sing it at all. Dessay also does a hilarious version of the "Fly Duet" from Orpheus in the Underworld, with her real-life husband, Laurent Naouri (he plays Jupiter, transforming himself into a fly to woo Eurydice).

Then there's the famous Can-Can from the same operetta, whose actual title is "Infernal Gallop." Doesn't it just sound like an infernal gallop, especially when all the brass instruments come in? Doesn't "Les oiseaux" sound just like a mechanical doll, and the "Fly Duet" just like a fly? Since Offenbach wrote comic operas, his librettists gave him all these outrageous situations to work with--and he rose to the occasion splendidly. So splendidly that I ripped him off! (the sincerest form of flattery?)

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