• Opera In-Depth - Les Troyens - The Theme of History

    This article intends to examine the intellectual context for the opera Les Troyens by Berlioz, and how its theme is inserted in a certain concept of History, and demonstrates how it is musically conveyed.

    Aeneas flees burning Troy, painting by Federico Barocci, 1598

    This opera is a 19th century work. Philosophical thought in the previous century was characterized by the Enlightenment movement in which History was not given a prominent part. The premise was that social institutions and mores could be transformed with the goal of conform to an idealized concept of a good society. We can find this in Voltaire. Philosophers of the Enlightenment believed in a rational and naturally good society.

    However the 19th century brought in a new approach: the idea that History continues its course independently of human volition. After the French Revolution, this concept becomes more and more prevalent and can be found in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Hegel.

    The latter introduced the concept of dialectical evolution, which establishes that forward movement is often interrupted by what he called 'creative reversals' but the general trend continues to march on independently of the forces that may have tried to stop the motion. It is the well-known sequence of thesis->antithesis->synthesis.

    Hegel also believed that the historical process although impersonal, worked by the means of human agencies - historical heroes, and historical victims. Carlyle emphacized the hero's side, while Marx focused on the victim's side.

    Thinkers like Paul Robinson have proposed that Les Troyens is the perfect illustration of these 19th century philosophical principles put to work. As he puts it, the opera is the "musical embodiment of the Hegelian idea of History" since its story arc follows a dialectical pattern.

    Yes, because the first two acts function as the thesis: a new civilization is to be born of the ashes of the old one, with the hero Aneneas as its agent. But this is not accomplish before the antithesis, that is, he doesn't go directly to Italy but backpedals into Carthage - the anithetical creative reversal. When he finally moves forward, hopefully he'll have learned lessons from interacting with Dido, the victim, and witnessing Carthage's prosperity and dilemmas; thus his new-found Rome will became the synthesis between his Trojan ideals and the pragmatic Carthage.

    We haven't talked much about Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. It tells the same story. However, Purcell wasn't a 19th century man, therefore his Aeneas is more focused on love than in History. Berlioz, on the other hand, pushes his opera away from the intimacy of two lovers, toward the public domain (which is the headquarter, so to speak, of History and Power).

    The events in Les Troyens all have public consequences and are displayed for the public to see. This is why we get such a large chorus - traditionally, a device that represents and symbolizes public opinion and the observant society at large. Other operas with historical approaches that address the issue of power are Aida, and Don Carlos. Still, Les Troyens beats them in the matter of chorus numbers. Boris Godunov does match Les Troyens's extensive use of chorus, but then, Boris Godunov is *also* an opera that is dialectical and addresses History and its human agents that can't escape their destiny. It is very similar to Les Troyens in many regards.

    Scenes unlike in Purcell are often set in outdoor public spaces. Even the intimate moments in Les Troyens happen outdoors, such as the love scene in act IV or the lover's rupture in act V, unlike we see in many operas of previous centuries, where events were domestic in scope (e.g., Le Nozze di Figaro).

    Another notable characteristic of Les Troyens is its brisk pace. The opera is long, as long as some of Wagner's, but it is not long because scenes linger or are slowed down. It is long because many historical events are packed into its acts.

    Les Troyens evokes the public realm and the power of History in other ways. The entrances and exits of the chorus tend to morph into processions - over and over, while Aida has just one. The counterpoint of this insistence in using the chorus reflects in the relative rarity of arias - which are, by definition, moments of intimacy and instrospection. Furthermore, much of the music in Les Troyens is intended as public performances, when singers sing and dancers dance to other characters in the opera (royalty). Musically, this ceremonial approach is seen in the richness of the brass section in Les Troyens. This opera is a matter of great fanfare. Percussion is also extensively used in these marching numbers, especially the cymbals which merge well with the brass. Unsurprisingly, brass and percussion are absent from the most intimate scenes in Act IV.

    Les Troyens is also Hegelian in its display of the conflicts between small men - the victims - and powerful men - the heroes (as in, for example, the scene with the sentries).

    A very striking musical device to convey the inexorable movement of History in Berlioz's opera is the extensive use of the bass line. While the bass is just accompaniment in other operas, here the bass line acquires a life of its own and is very active, suggesting the forces at work beneath the surface.

    At the end of the opera, the intimate real descends down - by the means of lower notes - into the realm of the course of History. Her monologue "Je vais mourir" is an introspective piece, but it goes lower and lower, with a series of downward arcs. The first phrase of the aria descends through the notes of a minor triad in E flat minor, in sharp contrast with the E major triad when Aeneas first presented himself to Dido in Act III. Here, instead, Dido's descending triad is immediately echoed in the lowermost register of the bass clarinet. She keeps singing, and her notes go down from an F at the top of the staff all the way to an E natural more than one octave below. This is how the Queen fades away as a person and through her death joins the course of History.

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