The original music [1989/90] written for the play by Peter Weiss was scored for a chamber ensemble comprised of inmates of the asylum, positioned at the side of the stage and fully visible throughout the performance. The instrumentation was two clarinets, two tenor saxophones (one of which doubled with soprano), bassoon, two trumpets, horn, harpsichord, violin and double bass. The vocals were of course all provided by the actors, in particular the four designated singers, Kokol, Polpoch, Cucurucu and Rossignol. Although the original specified three men and one woman, we had three women and a single man. I was the conductor and wore a Napoleonic uniform – of sorts, each night.
I attempted to keep the music on edge throughout because of the unpredictable volatility always present, and bi-tonal as a reminder of the different levels occurring concurrently all the time – the patients themselves, and the content of the play they are connecting. Themes are used frequently as signatures, or leitmotifs, in various and different guises, according to mood. There is obvious reference to the Marseillaise in the course of the music, often coupled with the patients most heartfelt pleas to Marat: “Marat we’re poor and the poor stay poor…. we want our revolution now!” The Charlotte Corday theme , innocent enough in its original somnambulant character, recurs as a reminder that it was her single stroke that altered history and ended a life.
No.1 Homage to Marat; wreath-crowning ceremony; March. The scene is set, and Marat is lauded as hero and crowned with a wreath of leaves. The march describes how Marat fought for the people’s rights, with the big plea for revolution near the end.
No.2 Corday. The patient chosen to act Charlotte Corday, the well-heeled young lady from Caen, needs constant support from two ‘sisters’ on account of her somnambulism. The music is littered with pauses and delayed bass movement to portray this.
No.3 Charlotte Corday came to our Town. Here the Corday theme introduces a bustling street scene (patients mime various types in the streets: one is an ‘Incroyable’, another a ‘Merveilleuse’ or banner-bearer, yet more inmates are saleman, cutler, acrobat, flower-seller, prostitute). Corday buys the knife from the cutlery-seller, for forty sous. This is immediately followed by a macabre guillotine mime, the Tumbrel Driver’s Song [3(b)], a reminder of course of the fate of Corday after the murder.
No.4 The People’s Reaction mirrors the prevailing view of Sade that nothing changes with Revolution, and promises to the people always drown in a sea of corruption ( plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose….). There is more than just a hint of desperate impatience about the music here, culminating again in the plea to Marat; in the coda, the Marseillaise* fades away.
* the Marseillaise was composed by an army engineer called Rouget de Lisle, and was first heard on 25 April 1792 in Strasbourg, then a frontier town in the week-old war with Germany and Austria. It was originally known as the "War Song of the Army of the Rhine", and its inspiration came from the songs which expressed the people’s determination to defend the revolution.
No.5 Poor Old Marat. The music is at once mocking, paranoid and restless, with almost continuous triplet quavers, as the singers gleefully describe the bloodhounds' hunt for Marat. The fast waltz-style reminds one of previous civilisation; there is a reference to the Marat plea before, at the end, the Corday motif re-appears as the final arbiter.
No.6 is a Slow Carmagnole, originally a revolutionary “sans-culottes” * anthem [“live the sound of the canon!”] but here a pathetic description of Marat in his bath (always in the bath, for the relief it gave him from his painful skin complaint), awaiting his fate. The inmate actors have rehearsed the play much, and are ghoulishly willing the knife to fall. The music is a variant on no.5, and has the ‘Marat plea’ at the end.
*after the overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August 1792, the word “sans-culotte” was associated with the Artisans and small retailers who took part in the sectional assemblies and popular societies of revolutionary Paris. The term referred to men who before 1789 wore ordinary trousers, rather than the knee-breeches and stockings of the upper classes. It evoked the industry, manual dexterity and material independence of working people, virtues which were seen as the basis of civil rights and political entitlements. The word originally had very different – theatrical – connotations: in the Parisian boulevard Theatre a sans-culotte was a man, often a tutor or a writer, who found himself in compromising circumstances with a young woman whose welfare or education he was responsible for. The word was also used in a similar way by royalist pamphleteers in 1790 and 7091 to ridicule many leading figures in the Parisien Jacobin Club. By the summer of 1792 the term had come to symbolise the political aspirations of Parisian Artisans and shopkeeper, and between the summer of 1792 and the spring of 1794 no one could command political support in Paris without securing their support. As the Convention and its committees tightened their grasp upon Parisian politics, the autonomy of the sections and therefore the power of the sans-culottes was gradually eroded, and they were finally eliminated as an effective political force with the trial of Hebert and the leaders of the Paris commune in April 1794.
There is a wonderful pamphlet, a very radical piece of writing from this time:
“A sans-culotte, you devils? This is a creature who always goes on foot, who does not own millions of livres, as you would all like to do, owns no chateaux, has no servants to do his bidding, and who lives very simply with his wife and children, if he has any, on the fourth or fifth floor.
“He is useful, for he knows how to work in the fields, or in a smithy or sawmill, how to use a file, how to cover a roof, make his own clogs – and how to pour out his blood to the last drop for the good of the Republic. And since he is at work, one may be sure not to see his face in the fashionable Chartres café, nor in the bars where there is conspiring and gambling, nor in the literary salons.
“In the evening he goes to his section meeting, without powder or scent or boots, nor with any hope of being noticed by the women citizens on the benches, but in order to lend all his strength to sound motions, and to crush any which arise from the odious faction of so-called statesman. Apart from that, a sans-culotte always has an edge on his blade: to trim the ears of ill-wishers. Sometimes he marches with his pike; but at the first sound of the drum you may see him setting off for the Vendee, for the army of the Alps or of the North.”
No.7 Fifteen Glorious Years. Just as the knife is about to fall, Sade, the author of the play, freezes the action in order to deliver a quick history (in song) of the previous fifteen years, from 1793 to 1808. It is a grim description of the inevitable fate of almost all the political leaders under the awesome guillotine, culminating in the ridiculous but rabble-rousing “Marat…. we’re marching on behind Napoleon!” to a theme accompanied by chunks of the Marseillaise. The patients start to become dangerously aroused and impassioned. Marat’s theme is ever-present.
No.8 The Final March. In this last song the inmates feel liberated and empowered. The authority of the sisters and nurses, and of the Head of the institution becomes impotent in the face of the inmates’ rebellion. The State is to be overthrown! The Marseillaise appears first in bi-tonal canon, and later as a fanfare of ensuing chaos. In between there is a triumphant March, victorious and invincible, “for the good of all people everywhere” including, of course, the Asylum at Charenton. The nightmare begins in earnest as various themes combine over the ostinato bass, Corday’s and Marat’s, punctuated with fleeting bursts of the Marseillaise as the inmates run amok. In the play, the action (in our version) ended in a sudden blackout/silence; this concert-suite needed to end differently, with a quiet recollection of the Crowning Ceremony from the beginning of the play.