It’s around 9pm, and I’m backstage at BAM Fischer (Brooklyn Academy of Music), frantically looking for my yarmulke, when really I’m supposed to be in place waiting for my entrance to go on stage and play some organ. We’ve all been there, right? I thought so.

I’m in the throes of my first off-Broadway show in NYC. I’m not sure if this is a rite of passage or not, but it certainly makes me feel like I’m starting to sink my teeth into being a working musician in the city. But rather than playing Stephen Schwartz on the keyboard or a harp part for an Andrew Lloyd Webber-ian musical, I’ve been contracted to play the harpsichord and the organ, on stage, in costume. In fact, I’m not playing any songs, or even accompanying any singers. On the organ, I’m playing two solos, Choral no. 3 in A minor by César Franck and Litanies by Jehan Alain, while at the harpsichord I’m playing movements from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Fêtes d’Hebe

Like the music, the show’s content matter is decidedly French, delving into a peculiar episode in France’s history. The main character is one Alfred Dreyfus, the object of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, from which the show takes its name. For those unfamiliar, the Dreyfus Affair was a Watergate-level conspiracy to frame a Alsatian Jewish officer in the 14th Artillery Regiment (Alfred Dreyfus) for espionage in service of Germany. In the show Alfred’s story of accusation and exile is told, are the efforts of his family, defenders and advocates, most notably, Émile Zola. The script is interwoven with music from the period, such as organ music and a chamber work by César Franck, vocal music by Ravel and Halévy, and earlier French music, evoking the nationalist trends to revive the music of Lully and Rameau. It’s an interesting concept as there is just as much time spent by musicians playing as is there is by actors speaking. None of the music is melodrama, but autonomous as a dramatic element, at once telling the story and being informed by the historical information presented on stage.  

To be honest, it’s difficult to pull together; after all, there’s naturally a certain tension between presenting this music in a manner that is not self-contained both from dramatic and historical contexts. But the dramatic elements of the music are no less tangible than those of the actors’ delivery of the script. With the music of César Franck pervading the show, one starts to get steeped in the world of the National Front, and the pedestal upon which Franck was placed by the likes of Vincent D’Indy and his nationalist circle. In playing Rameau for military drills on stage, one starts to understand why Rameau was revived in the first place and published: it was an artistic project in nation-building – a period of collection and dissemination of works to bolster the notion of a national instinct, pervasive even in music.  

But with Jehan Alain it’s slightly more complicated. Litanies is perhaps one of the most performed works in the standard organ repertoire today. Light and jumpy, the repetitive Gregorian chant theme starts fosters a trance, getting faster and louder until the organ is playing as many notes as possible with your feet and fingers. The scene in question in the Dreyfus Affair is no less intense – as the conspiracy is being revealed, the nationalist sentiment takes on a religious tone, citing France’s historic Christianity as justification for cries to remove all Jewish officers from the Army. On stage, a crucifix is placed on the organ, and I head out on stage in a cassock, collar and skull cap to play Alain’s magnum opus.

That’s all well and good, but Alain didn’t actually spend much of his liturgical career in a church. Though a baptized Roman Catholic, his main source of income was playing the organ at the Temple de la Rue-Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, home to an historically Alsatian congregation and the largest of the Grand Synagogues in Paris.  Indeed some of the only recordings we have of Alain are of him playing seven liturgical works for Purim, under the direction of Leon Algazi, one of the most prominent composers of Jewish liturgical music in the 20th century. For many in the French musical circles, Alain’s death became a symbol of the France’s capitulation to invading forces in 1940. He died on June 20, 1940, the day before the French announced their surrender. Memorialized by his own family and by other composers such as Maurice Duruflé and Henri Dutilleux, Alain became a hero.  

I’d put away the Litanies for several years, but this time round my brain had started thinking about the piece more critically in terms of how I perform it. On the one hand, I have a fear that the audience will have a narrative about what Alain’s music represents, one that could potentially be misrepresentative – there’s a certain nagging sensation in the back of my brain in favor of some brand of authenticity. On the other hand, I don’t have a problem with the use of Jean-Philippe Rameau in the military exercise scenes, though irrelevant to Rameau’s own intent and purposes, it does accurately portray the revival of works like Les Fêtes d’Hebe. It’s as if there are two Rameau’s – on one hand the French composer of opera, and on the other a product symbol of nationalist culture.

To an extent, the way I have to play Alain for the purposes of the drama on stage would otherwise be perceived as a slight perversion by my organ colleagues. Litanies is about joy and ecstasy, starting out light and gradually gaining momentum. But for the The Dreyfus Affair, it’s necessary to keep the volume up and speed up throughout the work, provoking anxiety and an almost aggressive vengeance at the work’s end. And yet with Rameau, the strings and the harpsichord have worked on feminine endings, limited use of vibrato, and techniques of historical performance that would have not been used in the 1890s at all. The members of the military on stage move with grace and charm, lacking some sheen of hyper-masculinity that one might get from a late 19th-Century army drill.

The smallest musical details in a work, including a tempo or tone quality can totally change the way in which we hear a piece of music. An extreme example might be heard in the credits for Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, in which raspy Regina Spektor-esque sings a tired rendition of Edelweiss as a sad an ironic depiction of the Nazi regime in North America. Even within the Sound of Music, the two renditions of Edelweiss carry totally different meanings – the first is one of simplicity, when Captain von Trapp realizes his affections for Maria, but the second is the Von Trapp swan song, a final performance before they flee to Switzerland.

With popular music, stage drama and musicals, there’s a large amount of flexibility of meaning that classical musicians perhaps too seldom afford themselves. The notes on the page, our “text” to which cling so dearly, is somewhat fixed. Reinterpretations are often noted, rather than taken for granted, and usually framed in terms of appeals to history, or a search within the performer’s soul. Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 “is” about heroism, and no. 5 “is” about fate. These pieces don’t have “stories” attached to them, but a certain general idea of what they are about. But there are pieces with stories and narratives attached to them, more often than not called “program music.” In a way, Alain and Rameau have been transformed in “program music” in the Dreyfus Affair, even though there are conflicting stories behind the pieces. Mind you, the notes on the page remain the same. But as with many things, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

A few weeks ago, I crossed West 84th Street, where Edgar Allan Poe composed The Raven. I had just finished up a project with the Munich Philharmonic String Quartet, and had run into similar problems of context and interpretation in the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Over the course of a few days, we rehearsed and performed André Caplet’s Conte Fantastique, based on Poe’s intensely atmospheric Mask of the Red Death. There were no disagreements about notes on the page, or tempi or anything like that – but when it came to the “mood” of the piece, and even the story behind it, the first violinist and I had very different ideas, almost as if we had read two different authors.

The quartet had a pretty normative view of the story: Prince Prospero and his nobles meet for a party in the castle, to ride out a pandemic of the disease called the “Red Death.” Traditionally, the story has been seen as an allegory of the inevitability of death, and havoc that cholera rages. The “Red Death” supposedly sneaks up upon the victims suddenly, causing them to bleed from the mouth and die almost instantly. Poet Heinrich Heine, in describing the Parisian cholera epidemic of 1831, told of lavish parties where people would knowingly go to die. Whether they had early symptoms, a spouse with the disease, or an expectation that they would get it, the “Cholera Balls” in Paris may be one of the darkest instances of self-exposure to disease before the AIDS-parties of the 1980s.

There is no doubt that André Caplet probably had cholera in mind to be honest. After all, Poe wasn’t hugely popular in the United States, but was enormously revered in France thanks to the translations of Claude Baudelaire. Poe is often seen as having a cynical, almost nihilistic view on the inevitability of disease and death, one which resonated with the post-Napoleonic malaise about the human condition so often seen Balzac, Flaubert and even early Zola. Disease was not a product of individual sin, nor a complete accident, but the symptom of the inevitable collective failures of a democratic society. In a way, it’s quasi-fascistic, as the violence rendered upon the body by disease becomes redemptive in itself – it’s means of knowing that world continues as it always has.

The quartet took slow tempos, made expansive phrases, and turned the climax of the work into a somber tragedy as the nobles one by one fall to the “Red Death.” I got on board after a while – I won’t lie, such an interpretation of Poe’s tale and Caplet’s does work to a large degree. But what if Poe’s Mask was about something else entirely? I’ve got to say, I’ve got an entirely different picture of Poe. My first real exposure to Poe was on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. There sits Poe’s Tavern, a restaurant completely covered, floor to ceiling, in Edgar Allan Poe portraits, illustrations, and stuffed ravens. From the burger selection, you can order a “Gold Bug” (plain, with cheese), a “Starving Artist” (bunless, with blue cheese), a “Tell-Tale Heart” (Applewood Bacon, Egg) or an “Annabelle Lee” (crabcake, roumelade).

Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie, Sullivan’s Island while serving in the US military following an unsuccessful stint at the University of Virginia. Though a southerner and aristocrat by birth, he was largely cut off from high society in Charleston, just across the Cooper River from Fort Moultrie. Indeed a less than ideal home and upbringing saw a consistent separation from the society which he was supposed to be a part in the South, and upon moving North years of defensiveness had taken a toll on his temperament. While a brilliant story teller and conjurer of images, it’s often forgotten that Poe was just as much an expert on solitude, isolation and the consequences of human interaction.

When I read Mask of the Red Death, I confess that I don’t see a dressing up Heine’s tales of cholera, but a dark allegory about isolation and fear. Like much of Poe, the Mask has quite a few little details, which point to a larger idea or story. Despite Poe’s own assertion that his work was anti-transcendental, anti-moralistic, and ultimately an exercise in description, etc. let’s all agree that sometime people are the not always the best judges of their own work, lives or personalities. More bluntly, I’m asking you to bear with me for a bit.

One really famous bit of Caplet’s Conte Fantastique is the way in which the bell chimes are portrayed. Caplet uses a very loud note towards the bottom of the harp to imitate the “clang,” but adds other notes around it to make it sound creepy and weird. In scientific terms, he uses notes unrelated to the overtone series of the note so as to give the impression that this is not just another hour-chime but your bog standard literary death knell.

In Poe’s own tale, the bell is a curious presence, as it doesn’t come from the outside, but from a grandfather clock in the ballroom.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

Here’s the thing: how could 1,000 nobles hear this chime? Are they listening out for it? Is it a surprise? I’m a little confused, as at the start of Poe’s story, he says:

They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. 

Why have any indication of time at all? Could not this clock be moved? More simply, could it not just be stopped by manually stopping the pendulum (a common practice at early 19th Century balls?). This clock is a purely manmade device with a specific purpose – why is it there?

In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t feel like another fantastical tale about cholera, tuberculosis, or any other disease. Shortly before I started rehearsals for the Caplet, I headed to the Metropolitan Opera to see La Traviata, the ultimate tale of death by consumption. But it’s one of tragedy and the unfairness of fate, not of willful ignorance by the disease’s victim. Poe’s nobles fall ill of their own self-isolation and arrogance, thinking themselves immune to the disease which wrought the peril of their kingdom.

I searching through JSTOR, this time reading about Poe and some literary interpretations of the Mask of the Red Death. Another interesting facet of the story came up: only one character has a name, and the narrator seems to be present but not active in the story. How? Why? Many scholars naturally point out the fact that Prince Prospero shares his name with the main character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Living in isolation off the coast of Italy, Shakespeare’s Prospero enslaves two servants and uses his own daughter as a pawn to keep the Milanese political apparatus out of his island kingdom.

So to recap, in Poe’s story, we’ve got:

  • (1) a Prince who’s determined to maintain power 
  • (2) By letting disease ravage his country 
  • (3) And by fear mongering his nobles with a clock 
  • (4) A mysterious figure threatening to bring everything down 
  • (5) A downfall upon provocation of this dark figure 

At this point, I really started to doubt that the Mask was about disease at all, or at least not one we might think of today. It’s about something… else.  

What else was going on when Poe wrote Mask of the Red Death? Not in France, mind you, but in America? In the 1840s? In Poe’s world? I came across an article in the Edgar Allan Poe Review (http://www.psupress.org/Journals/jnls_EAPR.html) which offered a fairly convincing argument, but one which is fairly far removed from the Parisian landscape. Penn State Professor Paul Hespel offers a more nativist interpretation of Poe’s Mask, positing that this isn’t about cholera at all, but about race.

While Poe’s name can be found on monuments and street signs in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, Hespel makes the valid point that Poe was a Southerner, and a Southern aristocrat at that. In Poe’s own time, the main distinction between the North and South was unsurprisingly the contentious issue of slavery, and the extent to which the landowners in the South clung to their supposed right to own humans as property. But with this principle came an all-encompassing fear that it could not just be lost, but that their survival was dependent upon slavery. Abolition was not simply the absence of slavery, but a herald of miscegenation, revolution, bloodshed and death.

Hespel’s arguments are a little contentious, but the obsession with blood in Mask as a literal allegory for the obsession with racial purity and pedigree. The clock, while manmade and potentially controllable, is ebony – a threat in the form of the color black. If this were a story about the Black Death, it’s arguable that the story would be less creepy. But in inventing a name for an ominous, vague disease, the “Red Death’s” association with blood and mysterious demise sends a few shivers. Blood is not just a symptom, but as Poe states, the disease’s “avatar and seal.” Hespel goes further, pointing to the fact that the bell held a specific significance in the war over abolition, Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell became the visual symbol for the abolitionist movement in the North. The first national conventions of abolitionists in Philadelphia in 1841 and 1842 had sparked riots, forcing conveners to lock themselves in Independence Hall to escape an angry mob.

Who are Poe’s nobles? Are they pesky abolitionists, comfortable and smug in their moral superiority, trying to escape the anger of slave owners? Or are they souther aristocrats, escaping the impending doom of the color line and the pillar of slavery in society? What is the disease? Is it slavery? Or is abolition? Is Prospero the harbinger of truth? Or merely vice’s protector?  

It is here that Poe may remain true to form. It’s unclear what the message of Mask might be, except that arguments about slavery ultimately were rooted in some form of moral isolation and an overwhelming fear of social demise. We have records that Poe once sold a slave and yet we know that Poe eventually abandoned the South because of the alienation he faced in Virginia and South Carolina. Though he was an aristocrat, his parents’ career as circus performers and his own career as a writer ostracized him from “genteel” Southern society, where men were expected to uphold society through commerce, land cultivation, and slave-holding.

There is no doubt that Haspel’s interpretation carries no more weight or conviction than one which sees Poe’s Mask as fantasia on the theme of cholera. Perhaps I’m more drawn to it myself, because of the importance which the color line continues to play in the South.Indeed, my first visit to Poe’s Tavern was on Wednesday night in June 2015, the same night that Dylan Roof massacred a group of African-American worshippers at Emanuel AFM Church in Charleston.

My own hometown in TN had its own strict color line too – locals in White Bluff TN bragged about the fear that African Americans had of living in the town due to rumors of a Klan presence. My local county representative was arrested for domestic violence, having assaulted his daughter upon learning she was dating a black guy. Dickson County was the site of the first major environmental justice case, after it was revealed that toxicity levels at the county landfill had remained unregulated. It was further revealed that the landfill was placed on Eno Road in 1960 next hamlet of African American families living on property granted their ancestors after the Civil War. By 2007, at least one member of every family on Eno Road had been diagnosed with cancer. I could go on, but a description of the color line in Dickson County TN is enough for at least one book, if not several.  

For me, whether it’s anything by a Southern author, whether or not it’s even “about” the South, the act of trying to ignore a racial element or maybe refusing to investigate one requires a stretch of the imagination bordering on willful ignorance. Whether it’s Poe, Faulkner, Capote, Paula Dean or an issue of Southern Living, race is present. Paul Haspel’s paper on Poe may contain a good deal of speculation as to exactly what these symbols might mean, but I think he is right to try and undo the “sanitization” that a writer like Poe has undergone. Though he may be an “American Shakespeare” or the source of inspiration for Baudelaire, Verlaine, Debussy and Ravel, I find it hard not to see Poe the Southerner, writing about life as it was. To argue that race does not or cannot fall under the heading of “realism” is contentious at best.

If I’m honest, I think this is why the content Caplet’s Conte Fanstastique matters to me so much. To treat this work as a fantasy fable doesn’t really do it for me, as I see it to be just as much Poe as I do Caplet. I don’t hear pretty phrases, beauty, points of rest. I hear avarice, obsession, nervousness, impetuosity. I don’t want a nice tone, blurry harmonies. I want articulation, clarity, sound that the listener can’t ignore.

Whether it’s Rameau, Alain or Caplet, I guess it never ceases to amaze me the extent to which instrumental music – that is, music without words – can shape a story or narrative, and be shaped by context at the same time like some sort of contextual chameleon. I’m lucky to an extent, because the stakes of the material are rather low. This is music we’re talking about, not constitutional law or environmental justice, etc. But when your life and livelihood is in music, you naturally want to try and bring out some element of truth. That truth can be an aesthetic in and of itself, it can be drawn from historical sources, or it can be made to be polemical. But teasing it all out isn’t just about the notes on the page, but the images they foster.

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