La Mort de Tintageles

By Philip Hale

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? performed on Feb 26, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

The Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Melisande and the 1894 play Le Mort de Tintagiles is remembered today more for his influence on music than for his literary achievement. Few writers have so thoroughly captured, in their own day, the imagination of composers (including Fauré, Debussy, Zemlinsky and Schoenberg) through language and narration. The literary movement we call “symbolism” provided a framework ideally suited to the late romantic, impressionist and early expressionist musical vocabulary of the fin de siècle. Charles Martin Loeffler arrived in America from Europe as a man of twenty. He joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a violinist and became an important figure in that city’s musical life. This work is a narrative tone poem organized along the lines of the story. Lush orchestral colors and the immediacy of the thematic material define the work. For the modern audience, this piece offers a fine opportunity to reflect on how music, without pictures or words, can evoke and convey a story line. The figuration of the material, the vivid harmonic gestures and the use of repetition and clearly defined episodes work effectively, however, independently of any assumption of familiarity with the literary narrative. The power of the purely musical merges with the so-called extra-musical as Loeffler magnificently engages and surprises us. At its premiere in 1898 critics found the work both modern and decadent. Loeffler, who had used two viola d’amore instruments in the first version, revised the work for one solo viola d’amore in 1901. It is this later version which is being used in this concert.

The viola d’amore is an eighteenth-century string instrument with seven strings placed over an equal number of sympathetic strings. Many concert goers may associate the instrument with Vivaldi, but its singular timbre and sound appealed to other fin de siècle composers, including Puccini, who used it offstage in Madama Butterfly. The story of Maeterlinck’s play is recounted by Loeffler at the head of the 1905 published orchestral score as follows:

“La Mort de Tintagiles,” little drama for marionettes, is in five short acts. The characters are the tender boy Tintagiles; his older sisters Ygraine and Bellangere; Aglovale, the warrior retainer, now very old and tired; and the three handmaidens of the Queen. Tintagiles is the future monarch of the nameless land in the strange years of legends. He and his sisters are living in a gloomy and airless castle far down in a valley; and in a tower that shows at night red-litten windows lurks the enthroned Queen. The serene ancients portrayed death as beautiful of face; but this Queen in the nameless land is not beautiful in any way; she is fat as a sated spider. She squats alone in the tower. They that serve her do not go out by day. The Queen is very old, she is jealous, she cannot brook the thought of another on the throne. They that by chance have seen her will not speak of her – and some whisper that they who are thus silent did not dare to look upon her. ‘Tis she who commanded that Tintagiles, her orphaned grandson, should be brought over the sea to the somber castle where Ygraine and Bellangere have passed years, as blind fish in the dull pool of a cavern.

The sea howls, the trees groan, but Tintagiles sleeps after his fear and tears. The sisters bar the chamber door, for Bellangere has heard strange muttering in rambling, obscure corridors, chuckling over the child whom the Queen would fain see. Ygraine is all of a tremble; nevertheless she believes half-heartedly and for the nonce that he may yet be spared; then she remembers how the horror in the tower has been as a tombstone pressing down her soul. Aglovale cannot be of aid, he is so old, so weary of it all. Her bare and slender arms are all that is between the boy and the hideous Queen of darkness and of terror.

Tintagiles awakes. He suffers and knows not why. He hears a vague something at the door, and others hear it. A key grinds in the lock outside. The door opens slowly. Of what avail is Aglovale’s sword used as a bar? It breaks. The door is opened wider, but there neither sight nor sound of an intruder. The boy has fainted, and the chamber suddenly is cold and quiet. Tintagiles is again conscious and he shrieks. The door closes mysteriously.

Watchers and boy are at last asleep. The veiled handmaidens whisper in the corridor; they enter stealthily and snatch Tintagiles from the warm and sheltering arms of life. A cry comes from him: “Sister Ygraine!” a cry as from someone afar off.

The sister, haggard, with lamp in hand, agonizes in a somber vault, a vault that is black and cold; agonizes before a huge iron door in the tower-tomb. The keyless door is a forbidding thing sealed in the wall. She has tracked Tintagiles by his golden curls found on the steps, along the walls. A little hand knocks feebly on the other side of the door; a weak voice cries to her. He will die if she does not come to him and quickly; for he has struck the Queen, who is hurrying toward him. Even now he hears her panting in pursuit; even now she is about to clutch him. He can see a glimmer of the lamp through a crevice which is so small that a needle could hardly make its way. The hands of Ygraine are bruised, her nails are torn, she dashes the lamp against the door in her wild endeavor, and she, too, is in the blackness of darkness. death has Tintagiles by the throat. “defend yourself,” screams the sister: “don’t be afraid. One moment and I’ll be with you. Tintagiles? Tintagiles? Answer me! Help! Where are you? I’ll aid you – kiss me – through the door – here’s the place – here.” The voice of Tintagiles – how faint it is! – is heard for the last time: “I kiss you, too – here – Sister Ygraine! Sister Ygraine! Oh!” The little body falls.

Ygraine bursts into wailing and impotent raging. She beseeches in vain the hidden, noiseless monster….

Long and inexorable silence. Ygraine would spit on the destroyer, but she sinks down and sobs gently in the darkness, with her arms on the keyless door of iron.