Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Caplet - Masque Of The Red Death

The works of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe became popular in Europe way before they were popular in his own country. France especially took to the author's works thanks to the early translations done by the French writer Charles Baudelaire. Poe's writing influenced French literature, especially with the macabre and supernatural writings of Baudelaire and the science fiction of Jules Verne.

Poe's influence in France extended into the 20th century and into other arts besides literature, namely music. Claude Debussy worked on (but never finished) an opera based on Poe's story The Fall Of The House of Usher, Florent Schmitt wrote a tone poem based on the story The Haunted Palace, and André Caplet wrote a chamber piece based on the story Masque Of The Red Death.

Caplet and Debussy
Caplet was a conductor,orchestrator of some of his good friend Debussy's piano music,  and a composer in his own right.  Caplet showed much originality in his compositions and was an innovator during the first two decades of the 20th century.  He was a soldier in World War One and was a victim of poison gas. He died from complications from his war-time gassing in 1925 at the age of 46.

The full title of Caplet's Poe-based work in French is Conte Fantastique (The Masque of Red Death)" d'après Poe pour harpe à pedales et quatour à cordes, which roughly translates in English to Fantastic Tale (The Masque Of The Red Death) from Poe, for pedal harp and string quartet. A synopsis of Poe's story:

Prince Prospero and one thousand other nobles have taken refuge in this walled abbey to escape the Red
Edgar Allan Poe
Death, a plague that has swept over the land. The symptoms of the Red Death are gruesome: The victim is overcome by convulsive agony and sweats blood instead of water.

The plague is said to kill within half an hour. Prospero and his court are indifferent to the sufferings of the population, intending to await the end of the plague in luxury and safety behind the walls of their secure refuge, having welded the doors shut. One night, Prospero holds a masquerade ball to entertain his guests in seven colored rooms of the abbey.

Six of the rooms are each decorated and illuminated in a specific color: Blue, purple, green, orange, white, and violet. The last room is decorated in black and is illuminated by a blood-red light; because of this chilling pair of colors, few guests are brave enough to venture into the seventh room. The room is also the location of a large ebony clock that ominously clangs at each hour, upon which everyone stops talking and the orchestra stops playing.

At the chiming of midnight, Prospero notices one figure in a dark, blood-spattered robe resembling a funeral shroud, with an extremely lifelike mask resembling a stiffened corpse, and with the traits of the Red Death, which all at the ball have been desperate to escape. Prospero demands to know the identity of the mysterious guest so that they can hang him. When none dares to approach the figure, instead letting him pass through the seven chambers, the prince pursues him with a drawn dagger until he is cornered in the seventh room, the black room with the scarlet-tinted windows. When the figure turns to face him, the Prince falls dead. The enraged and terrified revelers surge into the black room and remove the mask, only to find that there is no face underneath it. Only then do they realize that the figure is the Red Death itself, and all of the guests contract and succumb to the disease. The final line of the story sums up: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

Caplet's piece is not a literal retelling of the story. What Caplet does, in the mode of many tone poems (and despite this being a chamber piece I consider it a tone poem)  is to capture the mood of the story. The music begins with long, hushed notes on the viola and cello in the background as the harp plays short motives in ascending triplets that sound like a spider creeping in its web.

There are some strange sounds made by the five instruments. The harpist knocks on the harp with knuckles, string glissandi, strings playing sul ponticello (bowing close to the bridge to produce an eerie, ethereal sound), etc. As for specific references to the story that are in the music, I'll leave those to the listener to discover (or not) for themselves. For me, the music itself is just as fantastic as the story itself. There is evidence that Caplet wrote a version for orchestra and harp that predates this version, but I have yet to find a recording of it.

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