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Grand Isle
Music References in The Awakening


In The Awakening Kate Chopin’s music references connect with Edna’s journey toward selfhood, from the early hours of her awakening to her final moments in the Gulf waters. Edna’s soul is stirred by Madmoiselle Reisz’s artistic interpretation of a dreamy Chopin Impromptu and Isolde’s love song from the opera Tristan and Isolde. In contrast, the Farival youngsters perform the dramatic and vigorous overtures from Zampa and Poet and Pauper, probably learned as part of their music studies. Music represents imagination, freedom and passion that Edna aspires to and which Mademoiselle Reisz has already attained. It is used metaphorically to represent Edna’s burgeoning sensuality and the conventions that stifle her and finally drive her to her death.

In the early stages of Edna’s transformation, she attends an evening soiree at Madame Farival’s home where the Farival twins entertain the Grand Isle circle with two popular opera overtures written earlier in the century.

Franz von Suppe composed the first piece in 1854 as incidental music for a stage play Poet and Peasant, which has since faded into obscurity. However, the piece gained some popularity in the nineteenth century and can still be heard in collections of noted overtures. Born in Belgium, Suppe lived most of his life in Vienna where he gained renown as a composer of light operas and theatre scores. Poet and Peasant is fully orchestrated with direct melodies and energetic rhythms.

The twins also perform the overture from the French tragic opera, Zampa, known today mainly through its overture, which was also quite popular in the 1890s. Louis Joseph Ferdinand Herold, a French opera composer, wrote Zampa in 1831 for the Opera Comique’ in Paris. Zampa, his most powerful stage work, ran for fifty-six performances until the Opera Comique’ was forced to close due to financial trouble. The opera concerns Zampa, an immoral pirate whose wicked career ends when he is dragged to his death in the sea by a marble statue of a lady he had once betrayed.

Zampa’s drowning foreshadows Edna’s final swim in the Gulf. Chopin alludes to the opera while Edna is in the initial throes of her struggle for independence, long before her journey ends in her death. Sea imagery is also threaded throughout both Herold’s Zampa and Chopin’s The Awakening. The opera is tragic and melancholic and the music engulfs its listener in its dramatic sweeps much as the water overtakes Zampa and Edna.

Mademoiselle Reisz’s music has an intoxicating effect on Edna. At Madame Farival’s party she performs the piece that Edna has self titled "Solitude." For Edna, "the very passions themselves were aroused in her soul, swaying it, lashing it…she trembled, she was choking and the tears blinded her." Music ignites Edna’s inner passion and reveals the intense change that takes place in her soul.

Later Edna visits Madmoiselle Reisz’s New Orleans apartment and finds that Robert, her romantic ideal, has written Mademoiselle from Mexico. While Edna reads his letter, Mademoiselle plays an Impromptu by Frederic Chopin and Isolde’s love song from Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde, returning to the impromptu as Edna sits "in the fading light."

Frederic Chopin’s Impromptu, a short piece originally improvised then notated, grew out of Mademoiselle Reisz’s own improvisation. The romantic passion and longing of the music ignited Edna’s amorous desires.

Frederic Chopin is a renowned Early Romantic composer, who was considered an artistic genius by his peers. He composed his works in the first half of the nineteenth century and was extremely popular during the 1890s. He drew on a variety of existing musical forms including opera and the mazurkas and polonaises of his native Poland. He transformed the term "nocturne" by his imaginative use of harmonies and melodies. Chopin struggled with tuberculosis and destitution during his final years, succumbing to the illness in 1849 at 38 years of age. Although his life was fraught with difficulty, his music is characterized by fluidity, soulful melodies, subtle rhythms and impassioned strength. It is no wonder that it ignites the embers of passion in Edna’s soul.

Richard Wagner was a unique genius who changed the course of music in the nineteenth century. A composer of operas, he aspired to a new musical form where the traditional boundaries between music and drama were erased. A writer as well as musician, Wagner he drew his plots from legend and literature, and wrote the lyrics as well as the music. In 1857 Wagner interrupted work on his famous three opera opus, The Ring to work on Tristan and Isolde. In the opera Wagner experimented with the atonal scale and introduced the leitmotiv, which changed the shape of music forever. The atonal sound created tension and suspense. The leitmotiv depicted complex characters and emotion and added richness and texture to the orchestration. The operas also demanded a new kind of singer able to convey these complexities.

Prompted by his own ill-fated love affair with a married woman, Wagner was impelled to develop Tristan and Isolde, the tragic story of ill-fated lovers who find happiness only in death. Tristan welcomes death as the way to his happiness. His love for Isolde cannot be reciprocated as she is married to the king. Isolde represents his ideal woman and as he dies of a stab wound received at the hands of the king’s men, he sings her praises. Without her love, he is nothing. Only she can heal his wound. However when Isolde arrives on a ship from Ireland to tend to his wound, Tristan rips off his bandages and dies in her arms. Isolde joins Tristan in death and their union is finally complete.

Isolde sings a "love-death" song in which she makes her decision to follow Tristan in death. In the twilight of Mademoiselle’s apartment, Edna revels in the love of her ideal man, as Wagner’s music presages her destiny. She, like Isolde, is a married woman and Robert will not exceed society’s conventions to hold another man’s wife. Edna, like both Tristan and Isolde, feels that she can only find love and bliss in death. Edna might have sung Isolde’s song as she took her final walk toward the gulf waters that invited her.

"Do I alone hear this melody which, so wondrous and tender in its blissful lament, all-revealing gently pardoning, sounding from him, pierces me through, rises above, blessed, echoing and ringing round me? Resounding yet more clearly, wafting about me, or are they like waves of refreshing breezes? As they swell and roar around me, shall I breathe them, shall I listen to them? Shall I sip them, plunge beneath them, to expire in sweet perfume? In the surging swell, in the ringing sound, in the vast wave of the world’s breath - to drown, to sink, unconscious – supreme bliss."





Linear Notes. Favorite Overtures: Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic. CD. CBS, 1981.

Kennedy, Michael. Ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. New York: Oxford, 1980.

Kreutziger-Herr, Annette. linear notes Chopin: Polonaises, Fantasie Impromtu Op.66, Tarantella, Op. 43. CD. Sony, 1991.

Rappl, Erich. linear notes. Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuther Festspiele. CD. Phillips, 1992.


-Content prepared by Sara Shull.

Copyright (c) 1999; all rights reserved.

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