A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 4 - Summer 2012

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Anempathetic Music in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard by Robert Dean

The type of music most commonly associated with late nineteenth and early twentieth century theatre and film is best described as ‘consonant underscoring’ in that the rhythm, tone, and timbre of the musical accompaniment reflected the events depicted on stage and the emotions experienced by characters.  This form of accompaniment musically mirrors the readings suggested by visual and dialogic stimuli as a means of amplifying and reiterating the dominant semantic message communicated through other sign systems operating in a theatrical or filmic production. However, consonant underscoring in film was not universally accepted as the only (or even most suitable) form of musical underscoring. By the late 1920s and early 1930s practitioners and theoreticians including Clair, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Alexandrov, Adorno, Eisler and Grierson published papers and produced films that explored the use of asynchronous sound and musical counterpoint. The purpose of these anempathetic accompaniments is summarised by Pudovkin in the following statement: ‘Only by such counterpoint can primitive naturalism be surpassed and the rich depths of meaning potential in sound film creatively handled be discovered and plumbed’ (91. Also see Grierson 101-4; Adorno and Eisler 40-3; Eisenstein 177-178; Clair 91-92).

The approach Pudovkin advocated produces an effect that subverts the traditional functions of consonant underscoring. For instance, Sonnenschien proposes that the clash between sound and image will build tension and create a ‘yearning in the audience for resolution’ (176).  In addition, the lack of clear correlation between music and event develops dramatic ambiguity and allows more varied and subtle semiotic messages to be conveyed. Within the published body of work that discusses this musical device numerous terms have been used to describe the affect it creates including; counterpoint, asynchronous sound, dissonant harmony and anempathetic music.  In this paper the specific terminology adopted is taken from Chion’s publication Audio-Vision, Sound and Screen (1994).

Chion uses the term ‘anempathetic music’ to describe underscoring which is not consonantly matched with the events or emotions it accompanies. It is a musical accompaniment that ‘exhibit[s] conspicuous indifference to the situation’ thereby creating a ‘backdrop of indifference’ (8). Although Chion focuses exclusively on film sound, examples of this technique can be found in numerous plays produced in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Boucicault 44-6; Foote 21-2; Harris et al. 60-6; Ibsen, The Wild Duck, 247-8; Ibsen, Hedda Gabler 20-1; Jones 50-1; Chekhov, The Three Sisters 95). The following paper will consider the dramaturgical functions of this technique through the close analysis of diegetic music used by Chekhov in Act III of The Cherry Orchard (1904) and thereby illustrate how this modern conception can be applied to earlier dramatic works.

The play’s narrative follows the gradual decline and eventual sale of the Ranevsky family estate. This transaction is necessitated by the family’s debts and the ownership of a cherry orchard which is no longer economically viable. Although various solutions which would allow the family to keep their estate are suggested, neither Madame Ranevsky nor her family seem to comprehend the necessity for action. The most practical solution is put forward by Lopakhin, who offers to loan the family 50,000 rubles so they can pay off their debts and keep the estate. However, Lopakhin’s proposition carries the caveat that the cherry orchard is chopped down and the land used to build summer homes for tourists. Madame Ranevsky cannot bring herself to sacrifice the orchard and by Act III the entire estate is under auction. The sale itself takes place in the neighbouring town and is not featured on stage, instead the audience are presented with a farewell party thrown by Madame Ranevsky.

                   (A sitting-room separated by an arch from a big drawing-room behind.         
                   Chandelier lighted. The Jewish band mentioned in Act II. is heard playing on
                   the landing. Evening. In the drawing-room they are dancing the grand rond.
                   Simeonof-Pishtchik is heard crying: "Promenade a une paire!" The dancers
                   come down into the sitting-room. The first pair consists of Pishtchik and
                  Charlotte; the second of Trophimof and Madame Ranevsky; the third of                 
                   Anya and the Post-Office Official; the fourth of Barbara and the              
                   Stationmaster, etc., etc. Barbara is crying softly and wipes away the tears as
                   she dances. In the last pair comes Dunyasha. They cross the sitting-room.)

Pishtchik: Grand rond, balancez … Les cavaliers à genou et remerciez vos dames.         
                                                                                                                              (Chekhov 126)

While all these signs indicate that a celebration is taking place, when the fourth couple move through the sitting room the sight and sound of Barbra crying while she dances jars against the apparent merriment and challenges the audience’s initial reading. Indeed, as the dialogue between the characters slowly unfolds it becomes apparent that the Ranevskys’ problems are far from over; they have no money to pay the musicians and the estate is in the process of being auctioned away. Although the awaited outcome of the sale is mentioned a few times it does not seem to negate the party atmosphere; Madame Ranevsky hums a lezginka (‘a lively Caucasian dance in two-four time…’, Calderon 127), while Anya’s German governess Charlotte performs a card trick and ventriloquism act. For the most part the characters’ ebullient and trivial behaviour acts as counterpoint to the important decisive event taking place in another unseen part of the storyworld. However, the lack of correspondence between what is presented on stage and this crucial narrative development does not dissipate the scene’s dramatic purpose. Gilman explains the function of this dramaturgical technique in the following way:

            The effect is to multiply speculation and heighten anxiety while at the same
            time, as always, keeping the event from becoming the nail-biting centre of direct
           attention a melodramatist would unhesitatingly have made it. (231)

In effect, the scenario Chekhov creates is an innovative variant of anempathetic underscoring. The music’s ‘conspicuous indifference to the situation’ (Chion 8) taking place presents a world which is unaffected by the characters’ trials and tribulations. If the scene featured a slow waltz played by plaintive strings the music would present a world in sympathy with the Ranevskys’ plight. However, against the anempathetic backdrop Chekhov’s characters’ hopes and fears are rendered impotent and ridiculous.  Or to put it another way, the musical counterpoint provides a detached ‘cosmic background’ (ibid.) as the ‘Grand Rond’ keeps on turning regardless of the scene’s emotional timbre or dramatic core.

Another factor to consider is that in The Cherry Orchard the apparent discord between the protagonists’ predicament and the musical accompaniment is created at the characters’ own request. As such, the Ranevskys’ generate their own anempathetic environment which they use to disguise the reality of their situation. It is as if the realisation that change can no longer be prevented or postponed makes the characters cling even harder to the routines and trappings of their out-dated, un-maintainable lifestyle. From this perspective, the anempathetic underscoring is not produced by an indifferent world outside the characters’ sphere of influence. Instead, the protagonists commandeer the musical affect for themselves and exploit it to maintain their cherished illusion of intransience.

Although Chekhov does not specify a particular composition that should be played during this scene the dramatic text does give an indication as to the type of dance music required. Firstly, Pishtchik tells the dancers to promenade with their partner (‘Promenade à une paire’) at which point the different couples move through the small sitting room before re-entering the large drawing room. Then he asks them to form a circle and rotate (‘Grand rond, balancez’). Finally, the men are told to go down on their knees and thank the lady they were dancing with (‘Les cavaliers à genou et remerciez vos dames’). Pishtchik’s presence as master of ceremonies and the instructions he gives suggest that the composition which accompanies the dance should be up-beat, bright, and lively party music. The first records that reference either a specific composition or dance used in an English language version of The Cherry Orchard are contained within two reviews describing the Oxford Players’ 1925 production directed by J. B. Fagan: 

            …the delicate beauty of that scene in which these spirits in bondage dance home and
           orchard away to the tune of an old Viennese waltz. (Agate 112)

            And so they drift on, and even dance (to Chopin’s melancholy valse in A minor),
           while the governess does card tricks and dresses up a pierrot, to learn when the
            dance is over that the cherry orchard has been sold. (The Times 14)

Agate’s reference to a Viennese waltz rather than simply a waltz implies that the characters performed the quicker European version of this dance rather than the slower more stately anglicised version (the music for a Viennese waltz plays at sixty bars per minute, whereas the accompaniment for a standard waltz is thirty bars per minute; see Moore 33 and 283). However, the reviewer for The Times actually names the specific composition that was used. Chopin’s valse in A minor (full title ‘Valse Brillante in A Minor’, Op. 34 No. 2) lacks two conventional characteristics of waltz music. Firstly, it does not feature the constant um-pah-pah commonly associated with this musical form, and secondly the tempo of the composition is lento and therefore some practitioners regard the piece as being too slow for dancing (Yaraman 73). Chopin’s biographer and contemporary Frederick Niecks described this waltz as being an ‘exception to the rule’ due to its ‘retired and private nature’ (936). Nieks also attempted to articulate the emotional resonance of this composition by explaining what he thought it revealed about Chopin’s musical taste and intentions: ‘The composer evidently found pleasure in giving way to this delicious languor, in indulging in these melancholy thoughts full of sweetest, tenderest loving and longing’ (ibid.).

The slow tempo, unconventional rhythm, and mournful tone of Chopin’s composition does not fit with Agate’s Viennese waltz reference (which may have been related to the geographic location where Chopin made his name rather than distinguishing a particular dancing style), or the instructions Pishtchik calls out to the dancers. As such, the composition used in the 1925 English language production would not have created the up-beat party atmosphere necessary to generate the anempathetic counterpoint Chekhov provides the blueprint for. Indeed, this musical selection is more in keeping with the theatrical tradition of consonant underscoring as it aurally emulates the protagonists’ melancholic emotional state. Furthermore, not only does this choice seem to ignore the playwright’s original intentions,  but it also disregards the description of how the scene should be portrayed given in the English translation used by the Oxford players.

For this production, Fagan used George Calderon’s translation of The Cherry Orchard. Calderon’s version included an introductory section entitled ‘Contrast of Moods’ which explored the frequent juxtapositions that occur in Chekhov’s plays. In order to explain this stylistic characteristic Calderon uses the opening of Act III as a paradigmatic example:

It is an old trick of novelists and playwrights to make surrounding nature adapt herself to the moods of their personages; to make the dismal things happen in dismal weather, and the cheerful things in sunshine. In real life people as often as not make love on a foggy November morning and break it off on a moonlight night in June. But the artificiality of the old method may be excused by the unity of effect which it produces in the mind of the spectator. There is a far finer effect however in disharmony, in contrasting instead of attuning the personages and their environment. …Tchekhof has made a system of such contrasts; you find them in all his plays… In Act III we see Madame Ranevsky waiting to learn the result of the auction. She sits in the midst, a tragic figure, bewailing the imminent destruction of the orchard that is haunted by so many memories of her childhood and her ancestry. But everyone about her is indifferent; they have got in a band of Jewish fiddlers; a medley of ignoble guests and intrusive underlings dances to its silly jigging, “a tedious latter-day dance, with no life, no grace, no vigour in it, not even any desire of the flesh; and they do not realise that the very ground on which they are dancing is passing away from under their feet.” (12)

The citation Calderon gives at the end of this description is taken from Meyerhold’s article The Naturalistic Theatre and the Theatre of Moods (1908). Both Calderon’s and Meyerhold’s interpretations indicate that the dance performed by the guests should be more of a jig than a waltz; a distinction which would clearly alter the musical requirements and the atmosphere created on stage. Calderon’s description also eloquently articulates and advocates the principles of anempathetic accompaniment, particularly with regard to how this approach reflects reality more accurately than consonant underscoring. Indeed, although it seems Fagan did not take Calderon’s advice, the translator’s analysis clearly confirms that the dramaturgical potential Chion attributes to this type of underscoring was identified, understood and even published over eighty years before he connected the technique with film.

Towards the end of the Act, Lopakhin and Gayef arrive at the party after attending the auction in town and a suddenly ‘agitated’ Madame Ranevsky interrogates them for the outcome. Neither character is immediately forthcoming with any information pertaining to the sale. An embarrassed Lopakhin explains that they missed their train, while Gayef tearfully responds with ‘an up and down gesture of the hand’before handing Firs a parcel of food and exiting (Chekhov, “The Cherry Orchard” 138). It is only after six dialogic exchanges have taken place that Lopakhin finally reveals he has bought the cherry orchard. Barbara responds by throwing her keys to the estate on the sitting room floor and exiting, while Madame Ranevsky reels and ‘would fall to the ground but for the chair and table by her’ (138-9). At this point, Lophakin recounts the events at the auction and towards the end of his speech he hears the musicians tuning up in the hall. Lophakin commands the band to play, however before they begin he reveals his plans for the cherry orchard:

        Lopakhin: … (The musicians are heard tuning up.) Hey, musicians, play! I
                want to hear you. Come everyone and see Yermolai Lopakhin lay his
                axe to the cherry orchard, come and see the trees fall down! We'll fill the                
                place with villas; our grandsons and great-grandsons shall see a
                new life here. . . . Strike up, music! (The band plays. Madame
                Ranevsky sinks into a chair and weeps bitterly.) (Reproachfully) Oh
                why, why didn't you listen to me? You can't put the clock back now,
                poor dear. (Crying) Oh, that all this were past and over! Oh, that our
                unhappy topsy-turvy life were changed!

        Pishtchik: (taking him by the arm, sotto voce) She's crying. Let's go into the
                drawing-room and leave her alone to ... Come on. (Taking him by the
                arm, and going up towards the drawing-room)

        Lopakhin: What's up? Play your best, musicians! Let everything be as I want.
                (Ironically.) Here comes the new squire, the owner of the cherry
                orchard! (Knocking up by accident against a table and nearly
                throwing down the candelabra) Never mind, I can pay for
                everything! (Chekhov 139-40)

After reducing Madame Ranevsky to tears, Lophakin is led away and the Act closes with music playing and the former owner of the cherry orchard crying. It could be argued that the music provides a consonant aural backdrop to Lopakhin’s jubilant mood after having made a financially astute purchase. From this perspective, Lopakhin commandeering the musicians signifies his new authority. However, although Lopakhin initiates the music it is clear that he is by no means overjoyed by the situation. For instance, before exiting he cries ‘Oh, that all this were past and over! Oh, that our unhappy topsy-turvy life were changed!’ (ibid., 140). Nonetheless, although Lopakhin may not be jovial himself his instructions clearly suggest that he wants the music to be celebratory. Put simply, Lopakhin wants to create an aural atmosphere that reflects how he should feel, rather than how he does feel. Therefore, the diegetic music which underscores this dramatic moment will provide a direct contrast to the emotions being displayed by the protagonists on stage; none of whom are in an emotional state that could be described as in tune with an up-beat musical composition.

In this context, the anempathetic accompaniment heightens the scene’s poignancy. The aural backdrop emulates the musical conventions of a celebration which thereby highlights the distance between the characters’ current emotional state and the positive feelings generally associated with such occasions. Lopakhin’s acquisition appears to have left him bewildered and upset rather than elated and triumphant. Madame Ranevsky can no longer pretend that the inevitable is avoidable and ‘weeps bitterly’ in a chair. Pishtchik, the former master of ceremonies, now speaks quietly and tries to get Lopakhin into the drawing room. Nevertheless, the band and the music they play are impervious to these emotions and provide an accompaniment which corresponds with social convention, rather than the characters’ subjective reactions. If Lopakhin was simply gloating about the situation his requisition of the band would seem cruel and anempathetic effect would be lost. However, because both Lopakhin and Madame Ranevsky appear to be deeply distressed by the outcome of the auction the clash between music and scenario is far more profound. This subtle but important difference was also identified by Calderon in the footnote he provides for the scene which describes how Lopakhin should deliver his speech and the function of the diegetic underscoring: ‘[T]his is not boasting, but bitter irony… he is ashamed of his own happiness; let the music drown it’ (140). Ironically, Lopakhin uses the band in the same way that Madame Ranevsky does as both characters hope their fears and insecurities will be obscured by an aural environment which projects how they would like to feel and be perceived. As such, the music is an anempathetic mask the characters use to conceal and protect themselves from a reality they do not understand, or as Braun describes it ‘a process of change beyond their control and comprehension’ (115-116).

In Act III of The Cherry Orchard it is the motives of characters who instruct the off-stage band to play and the reactions this precipitates, rather than the musicians’ own intentions, which informs how the audience interpret the scene. As with all diegetic music when a member of the storyworld engages in a musical activity the music’s meaning becomes inextricably linked to the character’s motives. Therefore, when the music does not neatly match the dramatic events it underscores the audience will have to decipher whether the inappropriateness of the accompaniment is intentional or accidental, subjective or universal, deceptive or transparent. The correlations between Chion’s conception of ‘anempathetic music’ and the application of similar techniques in an earlier theatrical work highlight the intermedial nature and adaptability of musical dramaturgy. Using modern conceptions to interrogate works that precede them and operate within alternative media deepens understanding of such works and highlights the generational universality of dramaturgic techniques that have been sidelined or overlooked. When the study of drama is segregated by the medium through which the audience is addressed the techniques employed can be mistakenly regarded as being unique to that means of conveyance. Categorising in this way has a particularly reductive effect on modes which transcend media type. These artificial boundaries cut through strands of dramatic expression and in doing so separate the techniques from their lineage. This paper re-connects one of these strands and in doing so contributes to the expansion, cohesion, and understanding of Musical Dramaturgy as a language articulated and developed across different mediums of dramatic expression.


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