Monday, January 14, 2013

The music of Les Mis: what the people sing


This month, David *Denby wrote a scathing review of the Les Misérables movie in the New Yorker. It's not long, if you want to read it:

Now, there are a lot of issues I could take up with Denby's article, just as there are a lot of issues I could take up with the movie, but I'd like to focus on his critique of the music. After making the caveat that watching the movie was the first time heard Les Mis's music, this is what he says:

"The music is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise. Listen to any score by Richard Rodgers or Leonard Bernstein or Fritz Loewe if you want to hear genuine melodic invention. I was so upset by the banality of the music that I felt like hiring a hall and staging a nationalist rally. “My fellow-countrymen, we are the people of Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin! Cole Porter and George Gershwin, Frank Loesser and Burton Lane! We taught the world what popular melody was! What rhythmic inventiveness was! Let us unite to overthrow the banality of these French hacks!” (And the British hacks, too, for that matter.)"
While I could talk a lot about his imagined American musical nationalism, in the interest of space, I'll concentrate on just two phrases: "harmonic richness" and "melodic invention."

In order to talk about Denby's ideas of harmonic richness, we need to unpackage "tonic-dominant." These hyphenated words refer to the most commonly understood and practiced concept of western harmony. Tonic is defined as the home triad (a chord made up of three notes), also called the I-chord. It's the harmony that that music continually returns to at the end of a phrase (called a cadence) or song. On the other hand, dominant (also called the V-chord) is a triad built on the fifth degree of the scale. The dominant chord usually immediately precedes the tonic, and it used to build up tension so that when we return to the tonic chord, we feel like the music has been somewhere. For an audio example, think of the ending of almost any Mozart or Beethoven piece; they almost always end a work by alternating between the tonic and dominant several times before finally arriving at the final tonic.

Now, melodies can travel through almost an infinite number of other harmonies besides the dominant (the subdominant (IV), supertonic (ii), and submediant (vi) to name a few), but really most music only needs two chords for feeling of harmonic motion: the tonic and the dominant. Denby's argument is that Claude-Michel Schönberg is a "hack" because he doesn't really venture beyond the basic two chords, the I and the V, in his music.

First of all, Denby is wrong about the music of Les Mis being only or even predominantly tonic-dominant. While Schönberg's music may lack some of the extra-note jazz inflections of American musicals of the mid 20th-century mentioned in his article, Les Mis's music is as not as simple as he makes it out to be. Many of the songs in Les Mis focus especially on the subdominant (IV) chord, among many others. Secondly, if tonic-dominant and harmonic richness is the only thing that makes music wonderful, then we can throw out a LOT of music. Much of Mozart's work, for example.

The one Les Mis song that could definitely be characterized as tonic-dominant (though it has a strong movement to the submediant (vi), or relative minor, at one point), is "Do you hear the people sing?" This song totally makes sense stylistically as a tonic-dominant song. Its style and mood is a moderate rousing military march, meant to be easily remembered and marched to. Military marches are traditionally mainly tonic-dominant, and I think Schönberg hit the nail on the head writing this song they way he did.

By the way, later in the article, Denby mentions Verdi's opera Rigaletto as an "antidote" to Les Mis. The most famous song from Rigaletto is "La donna è mobile," a song that is about as tonic-dominant as they get. In fact, until later in life, Verdi was not known as a harmonic innovator as much as a composer of memorable melodies, many of which are still in public consciousness one hundred and fifty years later. And that's exactly what makes Les Mis so memorable today: the melodies.

Denby does not elaborate what he means by "melodic invention," which apparently he thinks Les Mis lacks (it might be connected to "harmonic richness" or
"rhythmic inventiveness" in his mind), but I would argue that if anything is working in the music of Les Mis, it's the melodies. I certainly have the music stuck in my head, and may have had them there since the 1980s, when the musical first came out. These melodies have varied moods and emotional states from the raunchy "Master of the House" to the plaintive "Bring Him Home" to the hysterical "At the End of the Day." I'm not saying Schöberg's music is perfect, but it certainly is memorable and he does a wonderful job of weaving the themes in and out of the full score, something that few modern musical composers besides Sondheim do well. And memorably orchestrated, I would add.  Music does not have to be "harmonically interesting"(whatever that means for Denby) or have a lot of different chords to be memorable, poignant, and useful, and I think the music of Les Mis proves that. As for harmonic surprise, well, there are other types of surprises that can delight, too.

Do you hear the people sing? Singing the songs of this Les Mis? It is the music of a people who like it. Because there are lots of people to whom this music means a lot. I hope Denby the Dandy realizes he's asserting an oppressive bourgeois perspective, which is exactly what the French in Les Misérables were revolting against. But I guess that's what the New Yorker is all about. Or maybe Denby just picked the wrong music vocabulary for what he wanted to say? So let that be a lesson to you: don't use "tonic-dominant" unless you really mean it.

Vocab: chord, triad, tonic, dominant, subdominant, mediant, submediant, supertonic

*When first posted, I stated the article was by David Danby, when it was in fact David Denby. I apologize for my mistake.

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