Music in Coleridge's Remorse
Opening on 23 January 1813, Coleridge’s Remorse became the second longest running new tragedy at Drury Lane since 1797 (CPW III.ii.1041). It brought the theatre ‘well over £7000’ and was successfully exported to the provinces (CPW III.ii.1043). It has strong reasons to be considered Coleridge’s most successful work in his own lifetime. The music was written by Michael Kelly, the celebrated Irish tenor turned composer. Jane Girdham writes that Kelly ‘h ad a lyric gift but little technical skill, and sometimes allowed others to harmonize or orchestrate his melodies’. He had been appointed house composer at Drury Lane in 1796 and took over supervision of music at the Theatre in 1802, a post he retained until 1820 (Girdham). He was also manager of the King’s Theatre and owned a music shop and publishing business between 1802 and 1811. As a tenor, Kelly was celebrated for being the first English tenor not to employ falsetto (Girdham; Fiske) and for his role in the first performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (Reminiscences). His biographer, S. M. Ellis, describes him as a man of ‘unquenchable merriment’ (11).
This essay focuses on the interplay of ideas of music in Coleridge’s text and the use of Michael Kelly’s music in its performance. In part one I discuss the musicality of the universe that Coleridge creates, centring on ideas of harmony and the music of the spheres. This leads in part two to a study of the Invocation Song and the significance of the play’s concepts of world harmony for the self, its morality and its integration into the universe that the play supposes. The final section reflects on the social implications of the use of music in the play and its significance for Remorse as a dramatic project. The music selections here are provided through the generosity of the performers:
Soprano/soloist: Katherine Willett
Alto: Mara van der Lugt
Bass: Colm Ó Siochrú
Pianist: Jacob Rainbow
[n.b.: musical selections may be downloaded as separate files, below, or All Together (4.8 mb).]
View the sheet music.
1. The Harmonious Universe
Act 3 of Remorse opens with music on what is perhaps the quintessential romantic instrument, the glass (h)armonica. 1 Emily Dolan argues that this instrument, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, had an even greater ‘influence on musical culture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries’ than the Aeolian harp, its significance traceable to its similarity to the human voice (Dolan 14). The instrument consisted of glasses arranged in gradually decreasing size, sideways on a rod, which was rotated by a ‘foot-actuated crank’. 2 The glasses were then moistened so that they could be played using the fingertips. (Hyatt King 106-7) The glass harmonica’s ‘ethereal sonority acted as a promise that the perfect instrument could exist’ – ‘sweet and voice-like, capable of dynamic nuance, and ‘natural’’ (Dolan 15). The glass harmonica had a flexibility of dynamic variation and a pure timbre that resembled the voice, rendering it an eerie and magical instrument of great fascination. As a voice-like sound coming not from a person but an instrument, the harmonica suggests the potential of voice in natural objects, like the glass itself; conjuring a theatrical space where musical voices emerge from a harmonious, animated universe.
Alvar’s spell furthers this implication with an explicit formulation of the music of the spheres, which figures the soul as among
…that innumerable company
Who in broad circle, lovelier than the rainbow,
Girdle this round earth in a dizzy motion,
With noise too vast and constant to be heard:
Fitliest unheard! (III.i.40-44.) 3
Suggesting the Platonic concept of the soul as originating as and returning to be a star, Alvar’s soul is part of a cosmic harmony of souls, a celestial musical instrument whose ‘dizzy motion’(42) and revolutions gives rise to the music of the spheres. Pythagoras and his intellectual descendants saw the numeri governing both mathematical ratios and musical intervals as providing the key to the order of the universe, and the ratios created by the relation of the planets to each other as producing a celestial music. This music of the spheres is, according to Pythagorean philosophy, inaudible to all but the most enlightened philosopher. Supposedly stunned by the constant noise into an inability to hear, the mortal self is surrounded by a majesty of harmony that it cannot register - what ear unstunn’d, / What sense unmadden’d, might bear-up against /The rushing of your congregated wings? (III.i.45-47). The music of the spheres, for the Christian thinker, is a sign of our fallen nature and the limitations of our mortal senses as of our intellect. Reason becomes another means by which the self is limited, failing to reach imaginatively beyond the confines of intellectual constructs, which it creates and becomes bound to. The mortal self is divided from the ‘congregation’ of angels, unable in a fallen, earthly state, to experience celestial harmony.
[The rushing of your congregated wings–0:20-0:26]
On the words ‘congregated wings’(47), music begins and accompanies the rest of the incantation, announced by the words ‘Even now your wheel turns o’er my head!’(III.i.48) This exclamation is the speech-act of the sorcerer, who claims through natural magic to control nature itself and in speaking of the music of the spheres makes that music audible. His words place man at the centre of a universe that revolves around him, the cosmos becoming what Ong says it is in oral cultures - ‘an ongoing event with man at its centre’ (71). Coleridge reinstates momentarily with theatrical flourish, the vision of an anthropocentric universe, expanding outwards like the instrumental music of the orchestra to convey to the listener a metaphoric sense of being at the centre of an expanding space. By theatrical magic, the audience is privileged to a glimpse of a former world view in which the place of man in the universe was known and assured, revealing the failure of modern man to recognise his position in a wider sphere; just as he fails to apperceive the music of the spheres.
Through the transition to ‘congregated wings’, the planets or spheres are transformed into the angels, Coleridge enacting the move from pagan to Christian registers. This echoes Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice where Lorenzo says, ‘There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st / But in his motion like an angel sings’ (V.i.60-61). Coleridge collapses the simile, overlaying the images instead so that, through the fusion of metaphor, the planets become celestial bodies, souls, and angels simultaneously. Through the concept of universal harmony, he shifts between the different images, the metaphor becoming threefold in a manner which plays directly upon theatrical artifice. Alvar is disguised as a magician, but he is also an actor playing a man playing a magician. The stars visible in the scenery are painted. Everything shifts in form and identity depending on how we perceive it within the theatre, becoming in this speech a triumphant assertion about the nature of experience and the power of metaphor to construct and reconstruct our vision. Thus the concept of universal harmony enables Coleridge to shift from planet to angel to soul, moving between connected spheres of reference and revealing what Spitzer calls the ‘essence of the poetic…giving up before us multivalent relationships and other worlds – possible even if evanescent’ (‘Part 1’ 426). The harmonious planet becomes the singing angel which is also the released, bodiless soul; the visible cosmos becomes expressive of angelic presence and divine order. As Coleridge himself said in a lecture of December 1812, ‘that man is indeed a slave who is a slave to his own senses and whose mind & imagination cannot carry him beyond the narrow sphere which his mind can touch or even his eye can reach’ (Lects. 1808-1819 (CC) 1.325). It is the shared ability of both poetry and religion to release man from slavery to the senses and to gesture towards the ineffable beyond mortal limitations. It is in this sense that the poet is ‘the man made to solve the riddle of the universe’ (Lects. 1808-1819 (CC) 1.327).
The rest of the spell is an incantation, accompanied by music that further suggests not only the new audibility of the music of the spheres but Alvar’s voice as harmonized with them, uncovering their powerful operation in nature through the mortal experience of the sublime. Our experience of their power is one of ‘A sweet appearance, but a dread illusion’ (III.i.51), a mixture of fear and joy, which Alvar’s spell reveals as an experience of the power and beauty of the order that underlies nature. The Invocation Song emerges from this, invoking a reaction of awe from its audience by its use of cadences familiar from the religious service or from the chimes of church bells. This is not a black ‘charm’(III.i.69), invoking the spirit through black magic, but a holy ‘spell’(III.i.68), joining with the sound of a requiem bell swelling the ‘midnight breezes’ (III.i.70) and the ‘Miserere Domine’ (III.i.77). It provides a harmonic encounter with natural, vocal and religious music, harmony appearing in various forms and ushering in the separate registers to the song. The bell, the ‘Miserere Domine’ of the boatmen and the masses chanted in the second stanza, are all part of a mutually responsive chorus, praying for mercy for their sins and invoking the aid of God.
Leo Spitzer explains that the English word ‘chimes is derived from an in cymbalis bene sonantibus, interpreted as a "consonance or chord in faith" (spirituales fidelium concordiae), i.e. as an expression of the musical harmony of the universe, and, at the same time, of the faith of the believers answering to it’ (‘Part II’ 312). This is a harmonious universe where musical voices answer each other in expression of and in response to divine order originating with its creator. To be in a state of grace, to experience the ‘blessed days that imitated heaven’, one must recognise the divine in harmony. Theresa describes being with Alvar ‘When we saw nought but beauty; when we heard / The voice of that Almighty One who lov’d us / In every gale that breath’d, and wave that murmur’d! The love between Theresa and Alvar, a harmony between them, leads to an experience of grace and beauty in nature, so that they hear in its music the voice of God ‘who lov’d us’. This is an experience of heavenly bliss through a harmony between self and other, self and nature, in a beautiful, harmonious natural landscape expressive of God’s love.
2. Harmony and the Self
The single melodic voice of the invocation suggests the self in prayer, sung with little ornamentation as was typical of Mrs Bland’s ‘unsophisticated’ style. The soprano, Maria Theresa Bland, had performed alongside Kelly in many of Stephen Storace’s operas and was a singer of ‘compass, power, feeling, taste, flexibility, and sweetness’ (Oxberry 161). She sang her solo ‘exquisitely’, according to the reviewer from the Morning Post, and received ‘extraordinary applause’ ( Jackson 1.117-8). A small, stout woman, Mrs Bland was famous ‘for simple ballads rather than elaborate arias’ (Fiske 453). Michael Kelly recalled that she sang ‘with all the refreshing purity of her unsophisticated style and with that chaste expression and tenderness of feeling which speak at once as it were to the heart’ (309). The concept of chastity suggests a simple style of singing that revealed a moral purity in the song and, by implication, the singer, suitable for joining in the divine harmony. When the chorus joins in, the participation of the solo voice in a harmony of voices is enacted. It is likely that there would have been only one voice per part, playhouses generally preferring ‘to press into service all those members of the company who were not otherwise employed’ rather than employ more singers to act as a chorus (Fiske 273), thus increasing the sense of individual voices harmoniously intertwined.
The song itself is a Miserere, notably so called by Michael Kelly in his Reminiscences (II.309). A prayer for mercy, the miserere is commonly performed in a minor key but Kelly’s miserere is in F-major, and was, according to Kelly himself, highly praised by Coleridge. This is a prayer which conveys an implicit faith in the grace of God; grace combining the senses of beautiful proportion, musical embellishment, and divine favour (“grace”). The major key suggests the security of this vision of reality, the prayer emerging out of a harmony that also confirms its faith, gesturing towards ultimate harmony in the divine kingdom. Simply by joining its voice to the universal chorus, the soul enacts its own return to grace, and begins to be cleansed of sin.
Death itself is reduced to a pause in a musical piece, a rest to be counted in the rhythm that governs an order of which it is a necessary melodic part. The sound of the bells is carried from its source across the water and dies away, mirrored in the score by a rest lasting two beats, creating a hiatus in the melodic flow and a breathing space for the singer, before the melody is picked up again. Music continues beyond the apparent boundaries of mortal life, death coming to be conceptualised in a space filled by breath or spirit before melody resumes. It is a release from the body to join the spirits dancing ‘round and round the whirlpool’s marge’ (III.i.59). This is a measure composed of rhythm and melody, an expression of harmonious order danced on the boarder of chaos. The whirlpool is perhaps best regarded as the physical body descending in death, while the redeemed soul toils out and dances in universal harmony.
As a metaphor for moral purity, the soul must therefore be capable of dance, of moving rhythmically in time to music. It should be, in Pythagorean terms, ‘harmonious’ and ‘symphonic’ (Spitzer, ‘Part 1’ 421), revolving like a well-tuned musical instrument to produce melody. According to Plato’s Timaeus,
harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of the Soul within us, was given by the Muses….as an auxiliary to the inner revolution of the Soul when it has lost its harmony, to assist in restoring it to order and concord with itself. (109)
In the hands of a Christian thinker, this becomes the effect of grace on the degenerate self. Harmony whether in the form of music, poetry or a more abstract concord, helps the soul to achieve redemption through reintegration into what Augustine calls the ‘tranquillity of order’ (XIX.13.938).
In Act 5 of the play, it is through nature that the soul’s harmony is re-established. Harmonious nature becomes the nurse of its ‘wand’ring and distemper’d child’ (V.i.21) – a child which has become out of ‘temper’ or balance. As Alhadra explains, ‘What Nature makes you mourn, she bids you heal’ (1.ii.223) - natural processes remind the self to return to loving participation in what Kant called the purposiveness of nature and from this to achieve moral harmony with itself and with God.
Thou pourest on him thy soft influences,
Thy sunny hues, fair forms, and breathing sweets;
Thy melodies of woods, and winds, and waters!
Till he relent, and can no more endure
To be a jarring and a dissonant thing (V.1.22-26)
In universal harmony, the sinful soul is a ‘jarring and a dissonant thing’ (26) but by being ‘heal’d and harmoniz’d’ (V.i.29) can return to the ‘general dance and minstrelsy’ (27). Alvar is a Pythagorean physician – a magus, who attempts to bring his brother to remorse and repentance for his sins. This then, as Coleridge wrote in a notebook of 1804, is ‘the true Atonement - …to reconcile the struggles of the infinitely various finite with the permanent’ (CN II.2208). Mortal life is characterised by the infinite variety of finite things – heaps of little things that accumulate and proliferate as we move down the pyramid hierarchy away from the divine monad. Atonement is to become at-one or a-tone – to participate in temperate, universal harmony.
3. ‘Congregated Humanity’
Opposed to this is the dungeon in its various forms; places of confinement and discord, where time is torturously beaten out in the ‘crash of water drops! / These dull abortive sounds, that fret the silence / With puny thwartings and mock opposition!’ In the silence the sound of the water becomes a ‘crash’ that the prisoner cannot avoid, its ‘abortive’ pointlessness telling only of impending mortality – ‘So beats the death watch to a sick man’s ear’ (IV.i.9-12). Describing his sea voyage to Malta in 1804, Coleridge wrote of ‘Oaths & Dirt rattling about my Ears, like Grape Shot & whistling by me, like so many perforated Bullets’ (CL To Sir George Beaumont, 6 th April 1804). Unharmonious sounds, vulgar speech or repeated noises are like bullets, so violent that they pierce the body, crossing its psychological boundaries like physical wounds.
The dungeon is revealed to be another part of this futility, isolating the prisoner from the treatment it needs by contact with healing natural harmony. Imprisoned, first by circumstances, and then by the state, the offender’s soul ‘Unmoulds its essence, hopelessly deformed / By sights of ever more deformity!’ The language of the Bible and the liturgy, the interplay of innocence and guilt, gives way to that of Miltonic deformity by evil, the soul itself becoming deformed out of resemblance to the Creator – ‘His energies roll back upon his heart’. Already confined in the body, the ‘energies’ of the soul cannot be further limited without it sickening, its harmonious revolutions rolling back upon itself. This disintegration, the fragmentation of the self, occurs as its own energies begin to act against it through the failure of its internal harmony. Only an experience of harmony, as the nexus of inner and outer, man and God, temporal and eternal, can rescue the self from its painful, isolated awareness of mortal life ticking away in the repeated drips of water on a stone floor.
Thus Alvar turns away from his critical dissection of his brother’s deformed soul with the words ‘Let me hear more music’, seeking to release himself through harmony from the encircling psychological prison of anger and frustration aroused in him by Ordonio’s sins and obdurate refusal to repent.
[Let Me Hear More Music–2:48-2:52]
However, it must not be overlooked that Alvar does not succeed in reintegrating Ordonio into the harmonious universe of the play. He defies remorse and claims that even a thousand years of heavenly bliss could not make him capable of joy, revealing himself to be imprisoned in a dungeon of his own making – ‘myself alone my own sore torment’. The tragedy arises from our awareness of the beneficial harmony of the play’s universe and the failure of Ordonio to achieve redemption and reintegration in that harmony,
despite the fact that the murder he originally ordered, did not take place.
Act 3’s musical spectacle modulates from a major key in the song and incidental music to the minor as the spell is completed, but does not reach a conclusion, interrupted on the climactic leading note. The audience is left with the harmony unresolved, waiting for a return to the home key, as the painting is unveiled and the inquisitors burst in.
Earthly powers of religion and state interrupt the rite which was to bring Ordonio to a sense of remorse, imprisoning and back to hope of a return his heavenly home, their imprisonment of Alvar, as a further sign of their failure to comprehend intuit universal harmony.
Nevertheless this is a necessary interruption, reminding us of our inability to hear the music of the spheres, our incapacity to become part of an ideal harmony until after death. The ideal which Alvar strives for clashes with the conflicting social dissonances with which he is confronted – the ‘Moresco’ creed that demands revenge, overcoming Ordonio in the dungeon, which is itself the mechanism of Spanish state control.
As poetry, this Remorse is itself a piece an enactment of its own harmony, the word suggesting the combination of elements to form an orderly whole or an aesthetically pleasing effect, concord, the combination of musical notes to produce music or even the combination of words to produce poetry (“harmony”). Through the poetry of his play, the poet can mingle ‘with the Choir’, as he does in Religious Musings (4), joining his own voice to the melodies of winds and waters in praise of nature and its Creator, becoming part of the universal harmony. Alvar (Coleridge) perceives nature’s harmony, participates in it and to an extent, co-creates it, conveying it to his listeners so that it resounds in the inner ear, not only of the dramatis personae, but of the audience. We are exhorted through our experience of this harmonious universe to reconnect with the other, even if that other be regarded by us as sinful, remembering the vast cosmic order of which we are part. Ordonio is a cautionary tale - one of those ‘proud men, that loath mankind’ (III.i.111), estranged from social as from natural harmony. We are reminded not to hate the collective other visibly lit by the theatre’s candles in rows and boxes around us.
Both poetry and religion ‘prevent man from confining their attention solely or chiefly to their own narrow sphere of action, and to their own individualising circumstances; but by placing them in awful relation it merges the individual man in the whole species…’ (Lects 1808-19 (CC) I.325) In the audience of the great new theatre, the spectator can become part of a ‘great mass of congregated humanity’ (Kelly 309), released from their ‘narrow sphere’. Thomas Barnes writing for The Examiner, declared ‘The alter flaming in the distance, the solemn invocation, the pealing music of the mystic song, altogether produced a combination so awful, as nearly to overpower reality, and make one half believe the enchantment which delighted our senses’ (Jackson 123). The sensuality of this response reveals the extent to which Coleridge had captured the vogue for Gothic tragedy and the public desire for spectacle, arising in part from practical necessity in the newly built, ‘vast barnlike theatres’, which also provided mechanisms for ever more dazzling stage effects (Moody 208). Melodrama, presenting ‘emotion as an exterior, corporeal force’ (Moody 213), held out the promise of uniting an audience increasingly insecure in its mutual social relations, in a moment of dramatic absorption – ‘so awful, as nearly to overpower reality’. Michael Kelly’s account echoes this, recording how ‘a thrilling sensation seemed to pervade the great mass of congregated humanity….as if the hearts and minds of all were riveted and enthralled by the combination presented to their notice’ (309). Typically of his intellectual process, Coleridge was well aware of the vitality that could arise from this fusion of forms, particularly in a period of theatrical history ‘torn between the dull, increasingly anachronistic claims of legitimacy and the captivating, albeit vulgar vitality of illegitimate forms.’ (Moody 200).
Employing the less culturally elevated form of melodrama, Coleridge addresses the ‘lurking sense’, identified by David Charlton in instrumental music of the period, that the music of the theatrical revolution belonged ‘to the people as a whole’ (45). Music had been emancipated from its connection to either church or state, coming to be performed increasingly in ways that made it accessible to all of society, and not solely the amusement of the rich. It was increasingly speaking ‘a comprehensible language (not tied to Church or to Italian words)’ (45). The melodramatic aspects of the music, the ballad-like form of the song, therefore appeal to a demand for the spectacular and otherworldly but also feed off the social tensions of a society in which ‘those once unquestioned social divisions between boxes, pit and gallery had begun to disintegrate’ (Moody 209). The need for social harmony was perhaps being felt again more strongly than ever, even if achieving it seemed, as in the tragedy, a possibility deferred to heavenly bliss.
Michael Kelly’s music emerges out of the harmonious universe that Coleridge creates, achieving a theatrical experience that both demonstrates and encourages participation in a harmony that gestures towards ultimate heavenly concord. The harmony of the play reveals that ‘as Poetry might in some sort be considered the language of Heaven, so the enjoyment of it, that exquisite delight we receive from it was a sort of type or prophecy of a future happy and blissful existence’ (Lects 1808-1819 (CC) 193). Remorse presents the possibility of redemption through faith in an imaginative acceptance of a harmony that we cannot hear or perceive, opening to us new spheres.
1. Coleridge also considered employing the Aiuton or Ever-Tuned-Organ, an invention by his friend Charles Clagget, which, the inventor claimed, produced ‘refined harmony and the sweetest of tones’ without ever going out of tune (Clagget 12).
2. This video shows the French artist Thomas Bloch playing the glass harmonica. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XPfoFZYso8 (‘Glass harmonica’).
3. All references are taken from the printed version.
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Clagget, Charles. Musical phaenomena, founded on unanswerable facts; and a proof that musical instruments have been hitherto fabricated on the most uncertain, therefore the most improper materials. This work will extend to several numbers. No. I. contains an account of the aiuton, and the chromatic trumpets and the French horns, capable of the fine tune and regular harmony in all the keys in use, minor as well as major. Printed for the author: London, 1793. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 31 Aug. 2012.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Poetical Works III. 2 vols. Ed. J. C. C. Mays. Princeton: U of Princeton P, 2001. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 16. Print. All quotations are taken from the printed, not the stage, version.
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Ellis, S. M. The Life of Michael Kelly: Musician, Actor, and Bon Viveur 1762-1826, London: Victor Gollancz, 1930. Print.
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Girdham, Jane. ‘ Kelly, Michael (1762–1826).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. May 2007. Web. 2 Sept. 2012 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/15303/>
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Kelly, Michael. Reminiscences of Michael Kelly, of the King’s Theatre, and Theatre Royal Drury Lane, including a period of nearly half a century; with original anecdotes of many distinguished persons, political, literary, and musical. 2 vols. Ed. T. E. Hooke. London: Henry Colburn, 1826. Print.
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Moody, Jane. ‘The Theatrical Revolution, 1776-1843.’ The Cambridge History of British Theatre:Volume 2 1660-1895. Ed. Joseph Donohue. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2004: 199-215. Print.
Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. n.p.: Routledge, 2002. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 31 Aug. 2012.
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Spitzer, Leo. ‘Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word “Stimmung”: Part II.’ Traditio 2 (1944): 409-464. JSTOR. Web. 24 April 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27830053/>
-----. ‘Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word “Stimmung”: Part II.’ Traditio 3 (1945): 307-364. JSTOR. Web. 24 April 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27830079/>
‘Thomas Barnes, The Examiner: 31 January 1813, 73-4’, Jackson 122-124.
’Unsigned Review, Morning Post: 25 January 1813.’ Jackson 117-118.
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