Not surprisingly, the play Music contains a good deal of music. As his illness progresses, Jack, the play’s central character, uses music as a kind of therapy and also means to connect with the past. Playwright Barry Oakley was very specific about the music in the play and he explained his choices to Paul Galloway.
Playwright Barry Oakley
Do you and the character Jack have the same musical taste?
I think Jack and I have more or less the same musical taste. Let me check the play list … yes, all the things he likes, I like. So the answer then is Yes.
At one point Jack declares that he hates pop culture. Is that how you feel about it?
No, I think it’s more that I am immune to it. In an earlier draft of the script – it’s been changed now – I asked for Shadowplay by Joy Division, which was recommended by one of our daughters as the type of music Jack’s son Paul might listen to. And when I heard it, I thought it was rather good. And my daughter said, ‘That’s the type of thing you are missing with your snobbish attitude to music!’ This is something a daughter can say to a hidebound father, and she is probably right. The thing with Jack – and to me to some extent – is that he is open to popular music provided it came before 1950.
Do you have a musical background or play an instrument?
No instrument, no, and I have no musical background except that I love it. The middle class household I grew up in listened to hits of the week on the radio. I first became acquainted with classical music through the man who owned the garage over the road to us. He used to work in his workshop and put Beethoven on very loudly. I still remember the first time I heard Beethoven’s 7th blasting away. It affected me deeply, and I realised that I was missing something. So that was the beginning of a rather slow conversion to classical music. So I don’t have a musical background, but I made one for myself, I suppose you could say, by buying vinyls and CDs and just listening. But I’m not an active practitioner – I can whistle, that’s about it.
The play begins with Margie, Jack’s wife, playing the opening of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Minor (D784). Is that a favourite?
No, I chose it because it was the sonata Schubert composed just after being told had terminal syphilis. He was still very young. He ended up composing about a thousand major works and this is numbered 784, so the news didn’t slow him down. So I have Margie in the play say that it was Schubert’s farewell. He was amazingly prolific, as Mozart was, and God knows what he would have written had he lived on. When I read the life of Schubert, I listened to it and I liked it. But it is not one of the more beautiful of the piano sonatas. It is rather sombre, so appropriate for when Jack receives similar news.
Next you include a section from Gotterdammerung by Wagner, but I sense you are not a Wagnerian.
I couldn’t sit through the entire Ring Cycle – all those hours and hours, days of music – though I know people who would. I wanted to find something which reflected, perhaps unfairly, the portentousness of Wagner and something that Jack, who has had a few whiskies by then, could use to have a dig at his German doctor. There are wonderful things in the Ring, but there is much that is booming and portentous. I have a set of CDs which are selections from the Cycle – and even that stretches across four CDs – anyway, I went through them and found this. It has the right tone of portent, but I don’t really know what’s going on.
It is the character Hagen returning from the hunt with the body of Siegfried and he wakes the house. The title Hoi ho! is usually translated as ‘Awake! Awake!’
Is it? Oh that’s even better. That makes it even more apt. That gives the choice irony. I’m going to tell Aidan [Fennessy, the director] I meant that all along.
The next music is lovely; En Bateau by Debussy, a piano evocation of a boat drifting down a river.
It is really chosen because it is beautiful and evocative and, as you say, a gentle drifting down the river. It is meant to evoke a memory. As a young man Jack used to walk deliberately past Margie’s house when she was practicing piano, and sometimes he heard her play that piece.
Then we hear some Gregorian chant, sections from the Tantum ergo and the Ave verum corpus
I am still a catholic – yes, still hanging on – and I grew up with the Latin mass. My upbringing, of course, was pre-Vatican II. The entire mass was said Latin and sung in Latin. I must have heard the Tantum ergo sung many times, usually very badly. It never struck me as particularly beautiful music until I came across CDs of Gregorian chant beautifully recorded in monasteries. Then I thought it was wonderful. It’s in the play mainly because I like it and so I made Jack like it, too. I also have a CD of a French monastic order chanting the next part Ave verum corpus – this is the true body – which is usually sung with the Eucharist.
From the sacred to the profane: the Andrews Sisters singing Rum and Coca Cola from 1944. Is this one of Jack’s allowable pop tunes from before 1950?
I like this tune because it’s very sexy, very daring for the time. Calypso was new and the lyrics, if you look them up, strongly suggest what the mothers and daughters might be doing for the Yankee dollar. I have a CD of the Andrew Sisters and I’m still very keen on them, as obviously Jack is too.
In the play Jack reminds Margie about an early date they had to the cinema to see Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky with a score by Sergei Prokofiev.
I think the Prokofiev score to that film is probably my favorite film music. There has been a great battle on the ice, and Nevsky wins. And I love the Victory Chorus that follows. Jack recalls it vividly and puts the CD on as he is reminding her. And Margie, of course, doesn’t recall this central rhapsodic moment as he does, but that’s how these things are. Anyway, the victory of the Nevsky is also a victory for Jack, because he has managed to convince Margie about how great the film is and alsohe has slid his hand under the armrest to hold hers. A double victory. Oh, how antiquated all this sounds!
Next is another pop tune, though it’s rather obscure: Did You Ever Have the Feeling That You Wanted to Go? But You Wanted to Stay? originally sung by Jimmy Durante in the film The Man Who Came to Dinner.
I think I just read those two lines and I thought that would be right for Jack to sing in one of his strange moments. He starts to sing it. I can summon up Durante’s voice from the past and he kind of half sings this.
And finally, Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, which you specify in the script should run from 11’20” to 12’25”.
This section comes quite close to the end. Brahms wrote it as a lamentation after he’d been rejected by a woman. The first part’s quite gloomy as you’d expect, but later there is a transcendent section. That’s why I have timed it there. Jack thinks it’s a good piece of music – well – to die to.
Music by Barry Oakley is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 9 November to 22 December.