Obsessive love just doesn’t work out.
One of literature’s more curious remnants is a little-known novel by Belgian author Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898) called “Bruges-la-Morte” (Bruges, the Dead City ).
Bruges (Brugge in Flemish) is one of Belgium’s loveliest tourist attractions today, laced with canals and a stillness that becomes ever rarer in our modern, hasty world. At one time, Bruges was an active seaport, but it became cut off from the North Sea by the silting up of its river-canal.
In the first edition of his novel, Rodenbach included 26 black and white photographs of locales in Bruges that hauntingly underscore the mystery of the narrative. His obsession with death extends to his tomb in Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery, whose sculpture shows the author rising from a crack in his monument, a rose in his hand. “Une rose dans les ténèbres” indeed. (“A rose in the darkness”—line from Symbolist poet Mallarmé’s “Surgi de la croupe et du bond” set to music by Maurice Ravel.)
Hugues Viane is a widower, overcome with grief over the death of his young wife. He “retires” to Bruges to steep himself in his memories. He lives alone, attended only by his faithful, devout Catholic housekeeper. One room in his house is left exactly as it was at the time of his wife’s death, as a shrine. The holiest item in that room is a lock of her hair preserved under a glass dome.
As chance would have it, a dancer with a traveling opera company catches his eye. Jane Scott is the exact visual twin of his dead wife. She is also what we would today call a gold-digger. Hugues sets her up in a house outside of town, and has regular trysts with her there. He encourages her to try on his wife’s dresses, but as his desperation to complete the resemblance increases, so does his disappointment in the reality of Jane.
At the same time, gossip is increasing about the affair, eventually reaching the sanctimonious ears of the housekeeper, who flees to the safety of the Béguinage convent (one of contemporary Bruges’ most visited sites) for advice from her sister. She vows to leave his employ immediately should the hussy ever visit him at his house.
On the fateful day of the religious procession for the Virgin Mary, Jane arrives at his door, ostensibly to watch the parade because of his good viewing spot. Her selfish demands become shriller and she taunts him by daring to enter the forbidden shrine room. When she takes the lock of hair from the glass shrine, he can no longer contain his rage, and he strangles her to death with the hair.
Rodenbach explains in the preface to his novel that his aim is to evoke the town itself as a living being, forming the actions of its residents and in some ineffable way representing their spirits. Catholicism and a certain stifling guilt pervade every scene in the book, ruling even when obvious symbols are absent. However, the tolling of bells, the strict hours of Mass, the Béguinage, and religious processionals are found on almost every page, interrupting the silence of the dead city. Bruges becomes a state of mind, a refuge that ultimately destroys the refugee.
All this “decadent” Symbolist prose became fodder for the most popular opera by the Viennese composer-prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), who co-wrote the libretto with his father. “Die Tote Stadt” (The Dead City) received its premiere in two German cities simultaneously in 1920. Unfortunately for Korngold, his late-Romantic, lush, tonal idiom, though spiced with lots of chromaticism and polyphonic complexity, was passed by in the “rush” to the other –isms of the twentieth century.
I say unfortunately, but Korngold went on to become a handsomely compensated composer of many Hollywood film scores (“Captain Blood,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and many others), bringing high quality to a new genre of site-specific music. “Die Tote Stadt” was notably revived by the New York City Opera in 1975 and was preserved in a cast recording from that time. It is infrequently mounted, despite being loved intensely by its adherents, and it is hard to find much non-patronizing critical comment from the “serious” music scholarly world. A shame, I say.
So investigate for yourself. You can get Rodenbach’s novel as a free download from Project Gutenberg. The 1975 recording, starring Carol Neblett, René Kollo and Hermann Prey, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf is still available. And to don’t forget to visit Bruges, a “UNESCO World Heritage Site” for a memorable dip into a unique atmosphere.
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
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