Music as Language of Communication: The Sound of Music

Introduction

This paper concentrates on the efficaciousness of music to the human psyche and its communicative inherence; it deliberates on its sonorous alluring effects in softening a heart that seems inflexible with its powerful suasions, as well as on its rhythmic harsh resonance in rebuffing an unacceptable behaviour in the society. Music as an art form, like every other arts, in spite of its particularity for organizing sounds, the supreme aim of music is to communicate to its audience, to project a musical discourse from a source (singer) to a recipient (listener).Aristotle postulated that music is one of the six elements of drama (tragedy) by saying that the “song-composition of the remaining parts is the greatest of the sensuous attraction” (93). Indeed the sensuousness of music has a strong pulling on listeners, and because it has consistently be part of the theatre.

The Sound of Music as a filmic medium, transported and adapted to the theatrical mediumon to the stage bears numerous communication elements.Hence if this topic should be typified under any performative or theatrical-genre, for the sake of nomenclature, considering the syncretization of dramatic features and musical features, better say, hybridization of drama and theatre, it then stands asa case of musical theatre.

Arts as the Fulcrum of Communication

It is an established phenomenon for centuries that all forms of arts have messages and aesthetically communicate to us in varying creative dimensions.Without arts, apparently there would be no communication. The whole gamut of arts, traditional and contemporary, encompasses activities as diverse as:

Architecture, music, opera, theatre, dance, painting, sculpture, illustration, drawing, cartoon, printmaking, ceramics, stained glass, photography, installation, video, film and cinematography, to name but a few (Art Glossary, Encyclopaedia of Art).

All the above forms of arts communicate to man but in differing medium. The performing arts which is commonly referred to as public performance events broadly consist of acrobatics, busking, dance, drama, marching arts (brass bands), music and many others, all communicate messages to their audiences in unique ways. The plastic and visual arts which have to do with painting, sculpture, film and photograph also communicate to us. One thing we cannot underestimate about the arts is the preponderance of its whole valuable messages pointing at, and feeding man. Speaking of the sole aim of the arts, Jack Bornoff unequivocally states that,  “the whole of the work of art, its all- embracing message, is directed at the whole man, his intellectual and spiritual being, his emotions-perhaps even to the subliminal” (20). Another undeniable feature of all arts is that they are imitational and representational, that is, they either imitate nature or represent reality, and their source is life and nature and social realities.

Hence focusing on the functionality of music as a performing art in theatre productions.The commonly known or conventional role of music in theatre production is the interlude (a musical composition inserted between the parts of a longer composition, a drama, or a religious service), such as the chorus in the Greek theatre; just to foreshadow and to fill in the “inaction” time of a dramatic plot, a fragmentary role to sum it up. John Russell Brown’s testimony about this is just as remarkable as he states that, “Music that is played or sung is signaled by stage directions, and its contribution to how the play works is usually limited to particular moments” (45). However, the place of music in the performing art is quite invaluable irrespective of the limited allotment usually given for its interlude role in the total theatre;John Russell Brown further throws more light on that “Music sustains its effect over longer time spans than words do, and, when sung by a particular character, it holds back other dramatic development for its duration” (45). This obviously points out the effective power of music; this intriguing feature of music is one vehement functionality that manifested in TheSound of Music on the live theatre at the Open Air Theatre, University of Abuja. If music could hold such magnitude of effect, how about when a whole play is like a collection or a piece of music? John Russell Brown also gives a smuganswer by stating that:

In a very surreptitious way, a whole play can be like a piece of music in performance, and when this happens an extra assurance is felt onstage and in the auditorium; everything seems intentional and to have power beyond the ordinary. Movements, then, become something like dance, seemingly inevitable and delicately meaningful (46).

When a whole play is fused with a combination of musicality and drama in its plot or narration it could be termed as scenic oratorio, musical play, scenic cantata, melodrama, music theatre or even total theatre.

Music Theatre

The Sound of Music on stage can be termed as a music theatre for the sake of genre classification. There is more than a question of semantics in the use of the term ‘music theatre’, as opposed to ‘opera’. Music theatre has become current in several decades among the more sophisticated public, mainly in German- speaking countries, as well as well embraced in Broadway contemporary American theatre.

What is music theatre? It can mean a production of a standard opera, which stresses its theatrical or dramatic aspect; as it can mean a work which eschews the classical musical forms of aria, ensemble, chorus, etc., in favour of the dramatic continuity. Music theatre is like a melodrama, a combination of dramatic recitation with speaking, dancing, singing and miming. According to Jack Bornoff, music theatre can be considered as  “mixed forms, used in various combinations and to varying degrees, which in our view make up the contemporary music theatre” (19). Wikipedia describes music theatre as “a form of theatrical performance that combines songs, spoken dialogue, acting and dance”. It further explicates that the story of musical theatre is somewhat emotional in content – humour, pathos, love, anger – are communicated through the words, music, movement and technical aspects of the entertainment as an integrated whole ( see Musical theatre, Wikipedia).

Background of the Sound of Music

On March 2, 1965, “The Sound of Music” premiered inside New York City’s Rivoli Theatre. Today, it remains one of the most popular films of all time. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the Oscar-winning movie remains the third-highest grossing film in history, trailing only “Gone with the Wind” and “Star Wars.” “The Sound of Music” was based on heroine Maria von Trapp’s 1949 book, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,” but the Hollywood treatment took some liberties with the true history of the von Trapp family, including the following eight ways.

The Hollywood of Sound of Music

Maria, a novice at a strict Salzburg convent, loves the majestic landscape of the Alps and often forgets about her religious duties and instead goes hiking on the mountains. The Mother Abbess, a very wise woman, thinks Maria might be better suited to life outside of the convent and decides to send her Captain von Trapp’s home to be the governess to his seven children.

When she arrives there, Maria is surprised at the military discipline which their father, a distinguished and widowed naval officer, exercises over his children and discovers that she is the latest in a long line of governesses that the children have driven away. Maria takes a different approach, instead of educating the children she introduces music into their lives. She teaches them how to sing, play and laugh and is rewarded with the children’s sympathy and love.

The children perform a puppet show for their father and this is where we see the blossoming love between the Baron and Maria for the first time. However, just a few days later the Captain presents Baroness Schroeder to his children as his fiancée. During a ball, the Captain and Maria perform a traditional folklore dance for the children and while they are dancing they discover their feelings for one another. Baroness Schroeder encourages Maria to leave the Trapp family home immediately and she flees back to the convent.

The children soon feel the loss of Maria and think about ways to make her come back meanwhile the Captain decides to marry Baroness Schroeder. Back at the convent Maria confesses her love for the Captain and the Mother Abbess makes her climb every mountain for her love. She hurries back to the Trapp’s family home only to find that the Captain has set his mind to marrying the Baroness. However, the Baroness sees the true love between the Captain and Maria and leaves. Maria marries the man she loves in the abbey where she was a novice accompanied by the seven children.

In a twist of fate, when they return from their honeymoon the Nazis have already seized occupation of Austria. The Captain plans to escape from enforced naval service and sees his opportunity: the whole family is to take part in a choral festival at the Salzburg Festival Hall. This is where the captain sings “Edelweiss”, an expression of his love for his country just hours before he has to leave it forever. The von Trapps make a dramatic escape after hiding out in the cemetery at the abbey.

Thematic Thrust

The movie centres on four outstanding themes and they are:

  1. Love
  2. Faith
  3. Sacrifice
  4. Relationship/marriage

The themes were dexterously captured in the stage version as will be seen in the following review.

The Sound of Music on the Live Stage: Music Communicating Dialogically

The play opens with a humming of the Sound of Music and the chorusing of the prominent Georg Friedrich Handel’s Hallelujah Chorusby all the nuns, save Maria who is missing. This opening heralds us into a conventicle setting of religion and a theatre that is musical. And so, Maria is nowhere to be found, all the nuns express their opinion by singing about Maria’s unwonted behaviour in the convent since she came, everything about her is totally unorthodox and adventurous.

The following songs by the Rev. Mother and the sisters speak volume about Maria’s outright escapades as a unique but odd figure at the convent and how everything about her seems a puzzle too difficult to solve:

Reverend Mother

She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee,

Her dress has got a tear,

She waltzes on her way to mass and whistles on the stair

And underneath her wimple she has curlers in her hair,

I have even heard her sing in the abbey. 

All Sisters

She’s always late for chapel but her penitence is real,

She’s always late for everything except for every meal,

… But I very firmly feel ‘s not an asset to the convent

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

How do you find a word that means Maria?

A flibbertigibbet – a will-o ‘- the wisp – clown

Many a thing you know you’d like to tell her

Many a thing she ought to understand

But how do you make her stay and listen to all you say?…

This musical dialogue communicates in an intriguing fashion and perfectly summarizes the anti-convent character of Mariato the audience. Something extra-ordinary about how these songs are sung made the audience totally engrossed and attentive. We know that vocal music are words/language, the only variance is that they are expressed with the intricacy of the voice which apparently gives it a special aesthetics that captivates its hearers. However, in the case of The Sound of Music on stage, we enjoyed both the singing and the acting, and didn’t miss the kernel of the message about the person of Maria.

Therefore it is clear that Maria is a misfit that puzzles and a way solve that problem becomes the conflict that sets in the progression of the play. Maria comes back from the hills and the Reverend Mother tells her she needs to leave the convent for Captain Fredrick’s home, a widower with seven children that needs nanny to take care of the children. The captain is a stern and strict person who finds it difficult to keep nannies, he subjects his children to regimented lifestyle and does not take no for an answer. The Reverend Mother reveals all these to Maria, she hesitates but nevertheless submits to it if it be God’s will. Hence as Maria sets to leave for the Captain’s home, another music serves an interlude, but instead of the original one that Maria sings in the movie, the orchestra adapted and sang Darey’s Pray for Me, a song pregnant with meaning and quite timely for Maria’s situation:

Pray for me

gbadura fun mi

pray I find my way

k’oribamise

Oh forgive me father but I got to take a chance

Oh I’m already gone so just pray for me

The subtextual communication here basically points at what might befalls Maria at the Captain’s home, having been told of the kind of family she is to encounter there, the only thing that consoles her at this moment is prayer for things to work out successfully.

Thus she arrives the Captain’s home, she encounters the complex behaviour of the Captain, and the children who seem totally incorrigible and never show welcoming disposition to any nanny. In no time, she shows her distaste to Captain Fredrick’s manners towards raising children like soldiers or animals. She declares, “I could never answer to a whistle. Whistles are meant for animals and not for children, and definitely not for me.”The Captain finds out instantly Maria must have been a troublesome lady at the convent. A statement she conceives as truth about herself.

After Maria is introduced to the Children, she is left with what to do with them. The first thing she thinks of doing is to skillfully teach them how to sing, an act that the children appreciate, and which eventually makes them love Maria to the extent they cannot do without her presence.

This relationship betweenMaria and the children points at another fact that music can communicate comfort, boldness and confidence to man. Take for instance the scene where the children run to Maria as a result of their fear of thunder storm and rain:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens

Brown paper packages tied up with strings

These are a few of my favourite things

Cream coloured ponies and crisp apple, strudels, door bells and sleigh bells

And schnitzel with noodles, wild geese that fly the moon on their wings

These are a few of my favourite things

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes

Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes

Silver white winters that melt into springs

These are a few of my favourite things

When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad

I simply remember my favourite things

And then I don’t feel so bad 

What does this music communicates? It points to us on how to deal with issues that bother us in life. The focus is that man does not need to bury himself in sorrow when he is faced with fearful and troubling matters rather he should take sometimes to recur some of the nice things or experiences of life. Remembering our favourite things and nicest experiences have a way of healing of pains and sadness. It is just like counting your blessing one by one. And this is exactly what Maria does with her music here and the children.

Another turn of event where music dialogue plays significant communication role is the scene where Raphael, the postman and Helen, Captain’s first child meet. In this scene Raphael uses singing to woo Helen, and she uses singing to accept him. In other words, music communicates love.

Captain Fredrick does not approve this turn of euphoric lifestyle for his family, and so he orders Maria to leave. As Maria is about leaving, he hears the children singing perfectly as the Princess brings them before him. This immediately spurs him to also sing along. It is a twist of fate as he pleads with Maria to stay back. The next line of action is a party scene where the Captain dances with Maria, it is a moment both discover they have feeling for each other, especially Maria, but her oath of allegiance at the convent forbids her not to even imagine love, and therefore, she decides to escape to the convent after the party.  This becomes a sad moment for the children. The father finds it impossible to console them even when he promises to get a new mother for them, because the forthcoming new mother it is not Maria but Princess. They cry out that they need Maria and not Princess, an act that bemuses and frustrates the Captain.No sooner as the father leaves than the children start to sing the above song to which Maria has taught them to sing whenever they afraid or bother by anything. And so as they begin to sing, Maria comes back amidst of the singing of My Favourite Thing and their joy is restored. Hence music serves as a force that resolves their quest for Maria.

The next intriguing role that music plays is in the proposing scene and wedding ceremony. Before the latter, we see how the Captain proposes and confesses his love for Maria with music, the lyrics of the song communicate the depth ofCaptain’s declaration to do anything to please Maria. This phase suffices the peak of the production with dexterous musicality by the orchestra. More than six songs are sung here, the most relevant ones are Joe’s R&B I Wanna Know, FelaKuti’s Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am, Fanny Crosby’s To God be the Glory and Flavour’s Ada Ada. All these music communicate so powerfully; the reveal the thoughts and feelings of the major characters. Take for instance Joe’s I Wanna Know which the Captain sings to Maria:

It’s amazing how you knock me off my feet, mmm
Every time you come around me I get weak, oh yeah
Nobody ever made me feel this way, oh
You kiss my lips and then you take my breath away
So, I wanna know

[Chorus]
I wanna know what turns you on (yeah, I’d like to know)
So I can be all that and more (I’d like to know, yeah)
I’d like to know what makes you cry (so)
So I can be the one who always makes you smile

[Verse 2]
Girl, he never understood what you were worth (hmm, no)
And he never took the time to make it work, no
(You deserve more lovin’, girl)
Baby, I’m the kind of man who shows concern, yes I do, oh
Anyway that I can please you, let me learn
So, I wanna know

[Bridge]
Tell me what I gotta do to please you
Baby, anything you say I’ll do
Cause I only wanna make you happy
From the bottom of my heart, it’s true
Tell me what I gotta do to please you
Baby, anything you say I’ll do
Cause I only wanna make you happy
From the bottom of my heart, it’s true

[Verse 3]
I wish that I could take a journey through your mind, alright
And find emotions that you always try to hide babe, oh
I do believe that there’s a love you wanna share, oh, oh
I’ll take good care of you, lady, have no fear, oh
So I wanna know

The Captain uses this music to express his unequivocal feelings of love to Maria and at the same time to find out from Maria what he can do to please her. He wishes to traverse across Maria’s mind and discovers whatever is in there, so he can be of help and take a good care of her. The above justices that music can vehemently be used to ask bothering questions on any kind of matter, from social to political or religion to philosophical. And finally, Fanny’s To God be the Glory and Flavour’s Ada Adaare used for the procession of the groom and the bride. The formal is used to acknowledge God who has made all things worked out fatefully for the Captain and his children, while the latter speaks of Maria’s beauty as well as all the good things that come with marriage.

Conclusion

Music is an art and a science that communicates, and what it communicates hinges on man, society and problems. It is either music decries the evils of men or eulogizes the heroism of men; it is either music wails about the ills and troubles of mankind or it brings hope and comfort the despairing state of men. Of a truth is a strong tool to effect even social change in our world just like music heals pains and breaks the rigidity of the Captain and hence softens his heart for love in the play.

References

Jacobus, A. Lee. The Bedford Introduction to Drama, 4th. Ed. Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2001. Print.

Brown, John Russel. What Is Theatre?: An Introduction and Explanation. Boston, USA, Focal Press, 1997. Print.

Bornoff, Jack. Music Theatre in a Changing Society: The Influence of the Technical Media, UNESCO, Belgium, 1968. Web.

Klein, Christopher. The History behind the Sound of Music. A & E Television

Networks. March 2, 2015. http://www.history.com . Sept. 3, 2016. Web.

“Musical Theatre.” Book Musicals. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org. 27 August, 2016. Web.

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