The Damask Drum
by Jouni Kaipainen :: 1986
“The Damask Drum is an opera about the possibility of love - of movement, of life - which remains unrealized and leads to destruction on various levels; it remains unrealized because of a caprice, because of channels of thought that have no foundation - for the possibility is a very real one.”
So writes Paavo Heininen in the notes to the libretto of his opera. The opera is based on the classic Japanese Noh play by Zeami Motokijo (1363-1443). This was suggested to the composer by Eeva-Liisa Manner, who also provided the Finnish translation. Manner is one of Finland's leading modem lyricists, a sensitive exponent of deep feelings with an exceptional beauty of expression. Heininen did the actual libretto modification work himself. One notable point is that for an opera lasting an hour and a half The Damask Drum contains relatively little by way of text and events. A great part of the time is taken up with chorus- and ballet scenes, which provide the work with a certain look, but do not actually try to carry the plot forwards. All the various dramaturgical factors have been given an important, deliberate role. Heininen has actually given his opera the sub-title of Concerto for singers, players, words, images, movements... - or as it could also be expressed Concerto for Opera House - which further underlines its multi-media character and adds yet another comment to the endless ‘new Finnish opera house’ debate.
The story takes place in the Kinomaru Palace and by th Laurel Lake in Chikuzen, Japan. At the beginning we meet a Gardener by the lake, in the autumn of his life:
“Lake pure as chrystal air -
Carp clean as pebbles:
Lake profound as autumn light.
Autumn old as time:
But not as old as I.
O clouds of bird' wings!
Still the October moon."
Far from the gardener and his loneliness we find the Princess walking with her lady-in-waiting:
"Now the autumn wind is cool
How lovely, walking on the shore
Just you and I.”
Although there is no actual meeting between the two parties (even visual contact is only on the side of the gardener), the miracle of falling in love takes place in his mind. He knows he has to see his beloved princess and her silken robe again. The chorus tells us that love knows no boundaries. According to the princess herself, not even the Thunder-God can separate those that love has joined together. But for the solitary gardener all this is much more than mere words.
A courtier announces ceremonially to the gardener that he can see his princess again if he can make the sound of the drum which hangs from a laurel tree by the lakeside carry as far as the palace where she sits. Full of hope, the gardener rushes to the place with the wish to “drown the anguish of my heart, and waken to life the music of the drum”. But the drum does not produce the mighty thunder-sounds he needs: the skin is of damask silk, and every drum-beat is represented in the music by a painful silence. The orchestra then comments on the dumb drum-beats at first pianissimo, then gradually more and more loudly and violently, so symbolising the gradual development of the gardener's endless efforts from hope through frenzy to madness. Finally he drowns himselfin the lake. At this point the realistic events of the opera are set aside, and the play as if punches through the skin of reality. The gardener metamorphoses into a demonic figure, who together with his fellow demons revenges the deceptions and wrongs done to him with relish and heavy interest. In a fury, the demons taunt and whip the haughty princess. Hatred, the reverse side of Love, takes control. One of the driving forces behind the story, delivered jointly by the spirits of the princess and the gardener, is that:
"Those whose destination in their minds is clear
Can never be prevented from attaining it”
Love, and by definition its corollary Hate, are powerful enough motivations, and therefore not even Death and the grave can hold the gardener back.
As can be seen, for all its apparent oriental background, the story has a thoroughly universal quality about it. Love and love unfulfilled, redemption and revenge are all themes known everywhere. This is a fairy-tale, in the way that for instance Mozart's operas are just that. In keeping with the genre, we must have the level of miracles and wonders. But should we wonder regard the miracle as being the breaking down of reality, the demons and the supernatural events; or is it - ultimately - only the act of falling in love, something so powerful which has its beginnins in something so small?
According to what the composer has said, the most important single musical theme in The Damask Drum (Op. 45, 1981-1984) takes shape from those desperate efforts at making the silken drumskin play: silence, a visual rhythm, followed by an aural echo and commentary. At first tirelessly eager, then increasingly desperate, the four Rites of Drumming scenes played out in silence are startlingly effective. In terms of its musical make-up The Damask Drum manages to be both a homogeneous and heterogeneous work. It contains a great many different ‘musics’ - the gardener's music, the women's music, the music of the demons, water and current music, and the silent music of the drum are the most important, and their characterisation has been taken to such a pitch that it is difficult for the ear at least to pick out common points between them. On the other hand, the work is solid and coherent, in terms of its sweep from beginning to end an exceptionally logical creation. In actual fact the dynamic arc of The Damask Drum could (with a modicum of simplification) be interpreted as a single giant crescendo, in which not just the music increases in intensity, but also the dance, the lights, and any other factors and features one cares to name.
The form of the opera is governed by the form of the drama in the background, by the progression of the plot. But there is another construction built on this foundation, the basis of which lies in the scene-types and musical forms of the old number-operas. In the musical scheme for the scenes of The Damask Drum we can make out words like Introduction, Cantilena, Duetto, Arioso, Interlude, Aria, Terzetto, Monologue, Arietta, Cabaletta, and so on. These musical numbers can be picked out from the overall whole, but still it would be wrong to regard Heininen's opera as a direct descendant of the golden age of Italian opera. The force holding things together is on the one hand the storyline, but no less just that logic which creates the musical uniformity of the piece. It is very hard put to a finger on it, to pin down, but it is definitely there, and its powerful presence supports the work as a complete entity. The Italians would compose a number at a time, while Alban Berg adopted symphonic structures. Heininen comes somewhere in the middle, and his originality is ensured through the variety of the solutions he chooses.
The main character of The Damask Drum, the gardener, is written for baritone, and it makes good use oflust about everything that can be created on the strength of this voice. The role is undoubtedly a heavy one for the singer, but then again the picture it presents of the solitary suffering gardener is also exceptionally impressive and authentic. Rather more imaginative still, however, is the way in which Heinmen uses his Princess and her two ladies-in-waiting. The music composed for the three women is the most sensual and beautiful Heininen has produced. It is not simply a question of the female voices' naturally being more flexible than the male, and therefore offering more potential to the inventive composer. Heininen really has succeeding in prizing something essential out of his figures.
The chorus plays a large and important role. It both comments on the events like a Greek chorus and creates some kind of living sound-facade, sometimes onomatopoetically, as a background for everything else. The material for the chorus part includes a large collection of different water sounds, which manage to make the lake alluded to on the opera stage seem a much more realistic proposition. Ballet is required in the realisation of the demon-scenes, and given the strength and vigour of the music one would imagine that any choreographer worth his salt would be inspired to produce something special. The orchestra maintains a powerful and colourful presence, and not for a moment does its role lapse into that of mere accompaniment for the singers. In the early scenes we can hear a whole host of delightful chamber music-like ideas; the score plays slenderly and airily and leaves enough room for the aria-like numbers of the soloists. The close is dominated by a chase of powerful tutti resolutions, in which the percussion is given a central role, a move typical of Heininen's work in general.
Timeless and universal theme
The Damask Drum can justifiably be regarded as Heininen's most important composition so far. It works splendidly on all levels and fronts and is a fiercely original individual contribution to the old argument ofexploiting all the possible artistic and technical resources in a single work. It is also a humane address to the audience on a subject both important and rather sensitive - a tender spot, even though it is such an old and familiar story. For all that, I still feel inclined to say that the greatest importance of The Damask Drum lies in its being a quite different type of Finnish opera at a time when the image of Finnish music theatre as a whole has become somewhat warped and one-sided by the profusion of works on subjects taken from our national history. The Damask Drum shows that a timeless and universal theme is the most durable basis for opera, too, although there are so many special demands placed on the composer of this much-maligned and difficult art-form that there is not always room left in the creative mind for real thinking of this kind. The autumnal tale of the solitary gardener has not yet travelled outside Finland, but personally I am convinced that the already considerable triumphs won by Finnish opera abroad could be continued through The Damask Drum, perhaps even on a hitherto unimagined scale.
Translation © William Moore
Originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 2/1986