10 December 2008

Pythonic Bayreuth

Musical Cross-Reference Within The Meaning of Life

Why does it always seem to hit me in the middle of the ni - i - ight?
— Billy Joel, "Sometimes a Fantasy"

Sometimes artistic insight comes unbidden, in the middle of the night, and at the cost of a little sleep. Sometimes, too, it's just a little silly.

A couple of months ago I was struck by the similarity which is the first item detailed below (less surprising in the fact of similarity, than in my only picking up on it decades after I first saw the movie). Yester even, after watching The Meaning of Life again, I at last awakened to the Wagnerian magnificence of its musical interconnections, befitting the grandeur of theme of this, the Python troupe's final film as a group.

Both of the first two songs under consideration were written by Eric Idle and John du Prez.

Before The Meaning of Life proper (the feature presentation), there is a short live-action film by Terry Gilliam, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, which closes with "The Accountancy Shanty" (see Ex. 1):

The two phrases are generally contrary in motion, the first outlining a stepwise descent of a fourth, the second (again temporarily disregarding the pick-up eighth-note) a stepwise ascent (with one chromatic passing-tone) of a major third.

Compare this with another Idle / du Prez song from the second half of the main film. On screen, Eric Idle himself surprises Terry Jones (in pepperpot guise) by stepping out of the refrigerator, and breaking into song with such force, that the architectural integrity of Jones's kitchen is compromised . . . and Idle sings the "Galaxy Song" (Ex. 2):

(I've cast all the examples in C major for ease of comparison.) Note that the first two phrases of the "Galaxy Song" describe exactly the same contours as those of "The Accountancy Shanty": the stepwise descending fourth (and indeed, the same pick-up pitch) of the first phrase is broadly the same in both songs; and the second phrase is even closer (the rhythmic 'space' of the successive pitches is more closely related in the case of the respective second phrases).

Nor is this all. Leave us consider the musical number from The Miracle of Birth, Part II: The Third World, "Every Sperm Is Sacred." At first the song is in a solemnly decorous duple meter (Ex. 3a):

Afterwards, though, it is metrically recast (with variation in contour) as a bumptious march (Ex. 3b):

Note that the E-to-G to which the phrase every sperm is sung is inverted in the march: the spaciously ceremonial descending sixth of the opening has been converted to a (rascally, it must be admitted) ascending minor third, which also relates to the ascending major third (stepwise via chromatic passing-tone) of the b phrase from both "The Accountancy Shanty" and the "Galaxy Song." (I await word from a Dutch neighbor on research suggesting that this ascending chromatic figure may in fact be derived from the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.) What is more, this "rascally" third is a compressed echo of gradual stepwise ascent (E-F-G) of the 'peaks' of the three successive phrases of the opening (marked by the bracket in Ex. 3a above).

The grand musical summation of the interlocking musical motifs in The Meaning of Life, predictably, is reached in the final number, "Christmas in Heaven" (Ex. 4):

"Christmas in Heaven" does not merely recapitulate phrase a (with pick-up), but then repeats the phrase transposed diatonically down a fourth. And the paradisal character of the music is a shrewd echo of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" (Ex. 5):

The descent at the start of "Christmas in Heaven" is stepwise rather than the arpeggiated tonic triad of the Foster; but the goal in both cases is the lower-neighbor figure on D and then an ascent of a fifth.

The musical coherence and archetypes of The Meaning of Life are little short of overwhelming, and magnificently redeem the choric promise of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from the Life of Brian.

Next week: Fischedämmerung, Piscine Twilight

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