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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: March 2008

4 - Music, text and stage: the tradition of bourgeois tonality to the Second World War


The old world

In the opening scene of the American musical Music in the Air (1932), with music by Jerome Kern and words by Oscar Hammerstein, we see and hear a provincial German, Dr Walther Lessing, composing straight out of bed on a sunny morning. A linnet sings outside his window, represented by flute and piccolo in the pit orchestra. After silencing competition from his cuckoo clock, Lessing whistles the linnet’s motif, harmonizes it on his on-stage house organ as the first two bars of a 2/4 polka, extends them to an eight-bar period, and stops to write it down, his scribbling represented by orchestral counterpoint to the motif. Trying it over on the organ, he is disturbed by children singing on their way to school, represented as more counterpoint to his music. They end abruptly as he calls on them to stop, with a two-quaver/crotchet rhythm from which he then tries, unconvincingly, to improvise a B section in the dominant for his polka. As he struggles with this at his desk, the pit orchestra telling us that an emotional, Wagnerian motif of a four-quaver upbeat in 4/4 is also very much on his mind (indeed it opened the scene before the curtain went up, and so was probably in his head as he awoke), yet another interruption occurs: his daughter bangs at the door with his breakfast tray. While she kicks, she also speaks: ‘Father dear, let me in. Both my hands are full.’