Urlinie and Urziel: Tonal and Dramatic Closure in Britten's Peter Grimes

Edward D. Latham
Yale University

This paper presents a new two-part model for the analysis of opera. Beginning with a brief discussion of the history and challenges of opera analysis, and focusing on the conspicuous dearth of opera analyses by Heinrich Schenker in particular, the paper posits a broad and flexible application of Schenkerian analytical techniques based on a synthesis of the two approaches outlined by Patrick McCreless in his article "Schenker and Chromatic Tonality." A second element is then introduced: the application of Constantin Stanislavsky's system of dramatic analysis to the libretto. Stanislavsky's system, which is hierarchical, linear, and musical in conception, is concerned with the "score" of each role in the drama: an outline of each character's "objectives" for the opera, both overall and scene by scene. To unify these two techniques, the concept of closure is discussed in both musical and dramatic terms: the first in terms of the closure of the Urlinie, or fundamental line, the second in terms of the attainment of the Stanislavskian Urziel, or "superobjective."

As a specific example of the correlation of musical and dramatic closure, the character of Ellen Orford is subjected to dramatic-linear analysis. The score of her role reveals a dual superobjective: to marry Peter Grimes and to save John, his apprentice. This dualism is musically reflected by a double background structure, consisting of interrupted 3-lines in E-major and Eb-major. Recent interpretations of the character of Ellen by Philip Brett and Ellen McDonald are contested in light of the new information this reading reveals about Ellen Orford.


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