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ClassicsOnline Home » SAYLOR, M.: Hunting of the Snark (The) / New Music for Vintage Silent Film Comedies (Cantate Chamber Singers, Snark Pit-band, Snark Ensemble, Becker)
Maurice Saylor’s setting of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark is written for a chorus and ‘Snarkestra’, Saylor’s word for his quirky, misfit pit-band. This includes all manner of percussion and woodwinds, as well as such exotica as harmonica, bass accordion and washtub, instruments “reviled by society at large”, in Saylor’s words. To the nonsense text he brings a riot of colour and wit as well as a series of traditional devices such as refrains, sea chanties, and a chorale. The result is music of vibrancy, excitement, and even dangerous volatility. The three silent film scores are pacey, dapper and splendidly jazzy.
Maurice Saylor (b. 1957)
The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits New Music for Vintage Silent Film Comedies
Lewis Carroll wrote his epic nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark in 1874. The verse tale, subtitled An Agony in Eight Fits, tells the story of ten characters whose names all inexplicably begin with the letter “B”. There is The Bellman who hires the crew in his quest for the Snark, The Baker (who has forgotten his name), The Butcher, and The Beaver, as well as The Boots, The Bonnet Maker, The Barrister, The Banker, The Billiard-Marker, and The Broker.
In an 1887 article, Carroll wrote about his conception of the Snark: “I was walking on a hill-side, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse—one solitary line—‘For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.’ I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means now; but I wrote it down: and, some time afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza. And since then, periodically, I have received courteous letters from strangers, begging to know whether ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ is an allegory, or contains some hidden moral, or is a political satire: and for all such questions I have but one answer, ‘I don’t know!’”
Carroll continued to answer all inquiries in the same way: all he could say was that the Snark was a Boojum and he knew of no other double meanings, symbolism, or intangible ideals. After years of questions, he did concede: “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense! Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them: so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than what the writer meant.” A year before his death, he wrote: “To the best of my recollection, I had no other meaning in my mind, when I wrote it: but people have since tried to find the meanings in it. The one I like best (which I think is partly my own) is that it may be taken as an allegory for the pursuit of happiness. ”
When I suggested a musical setting of this text to Gisèle Becker and the Cantate Chamber Singers, I was offered the use of a standard Mozart-size orchestra. It struck me that a traditional orchestra would be too straight-laced for Jubjubs and Boojums. My notion was to have a sort of pit-band, a Snarkestra, consisting of instruments reviled by society at large and rejected by people of good taste and common sense.
The work is scored for five woodwind doublers playing seventeen instruments: two piccolos, E flat clarinet, four B flat clarinets, two bass clarinets, oboe, English horn, bassoon, two B flat soprano saxophones, B flat tenor saxophone, E flat baritone saxophone, B flat bass saxophone, three percussionists playing orchestral bells, xylophone, marimba (two players), vibraphone, and a battery of traditional instruments as well as the less-standard ones such as brake drum and wash tub. Added to the mix are banjo, harmonica, piano, accordion, and bass accordion, amplified violin, chorus, and children’s chorus. I have evaded suggestions for the inclusion of kazoos and other para-instruments, for my intention was to highlight well-established instruments…well-established outside the standard concert ensemble. The instrumentation plays an important rôle in characterization. Instruments that represent the menace and danger of the Snark/Boojum are instruments exotic to the concert hall (also representing danger to the proper world of classical music): banjo, accordion, harmonica, amplified violin, bass saxophone, washtub, etc. The instrumentation can also color the work in other ways: Fit the Fifth, the Beaver’s Lesson, is accompanied almost entirely by instruments made of wood: marimba, xylophone, violin and clarinets.
I chose to have the chorus narrate and represent all the characters instead of having soloists playing the rôles. This practice allowed me to use the original Lewis Carroll text without modification. The chorus at times is also asked to be part of the Snarkestra, employing infrequently-used vocal techniques such as uvular trills.
A simple guide to the major themes:
The main Snark theme consists of a vacillation between major and minor—which may be thought to represent the fact that, as wonderful as a Snark may be, one may suddenly discover it is a Boojum just as quickly as major can slide to minor. The first two statements of this idea start on the tone “B” so as to keep company with the Bellman, Beaver, Baker, and other “B” characters.
The second version of the main theme ends with an augmented 4th, an interval that will be associated with the Boojum.
There is a refrain throughout the work: “They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care; They pursued it with forks and hope; They threatened its life with a railway-share; They charmed it with smiles and soap.” This chorale is in the Locrian mode (a mode based on the 7th scale degree) which has a diminished 5th (which sounds the same as the augmented 4th) in its tonic triad.
There is a sea chanty which represents the characters on the ship that have set out to help in hunting the Snark.
The Baker, being an awkward sort, has his text clumsily set to the music. Being the odd man out of the crew, he has a version of the sea chanty inverted and placed in a clumsy, awkward mode.
As the story progresses, the Baker’s version of the tune is turned upside down time and time again—each time getting narrower in range until the tune, as does the Baker, “softly and suddenly vanishes away”—fading off on a “B.”
The opening of the work represents the excitement, the wild adventure, the rapture of hunting the Snark, but also the horrors and potential danger—because sometimes Snarks are Boojums. So, I warn you now, the first couple of minutes are a bumpy ride.
New Music for Vintage Silent Film Comedies
These three silent film scores were written for the films of Charley Chase (Born Charles Joseph Parrott in 1893 in Baltimore, Md.; died in 1940). Chase was an American comedian, actor, screenwriter and film director. He is best known for his work in Hal Roach short film comedies, most notably for supervising the first entries in the Our Gang (Little Rascals) series, as well as for directing several films starring Lloyd Hamilton. Chase, unlike most of his comic peers, used no special costume or exaggerated makeup. His comic persona was that of a dapper, agreeable young man—everyday husband, boyfriend, businessman—in a wild jazz age, always unwittingly finding himself in the worst of embarrassing situations. In his later years, Chase worked at Columbia Pictures, starring in his own series of two-reel comedies as well as producing and directing comedies including those of The Three Stooges.
The three scores accompany films from 1924 that are part of Chase’s Jimmy Jump series, which some have suggested as the forerunner to the TV sitcom. In Stolen Goods, Jimmy helps cure a lovely young kleptomaniac who steals his heart, as well as everything else in sight. Its mood is comparatively mellow for slapstick comedy, and the score is a reflection of that laid-back nature. Publicity Pays has thespian wannabe Mrs. Jimmy Jump sign a contract to become the next Greta Garbo. Acting like a great actress is beyond her talents, and her expensive animal props threaten to have the landlord throw them out of their happy home. The score is a theme and variations on a well-known children’s tune as aural representation of the star of the show: a monkey. In Too Many Mammas, Jimmy gets into hot water when he tries to cover for his philandering boss, losing his own girl in the process. The hot jazz style of the music reflects the speakeasy where most of the action takes place.
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