Dom Casmurro Chapter 9


His voice had already gone, but he insisted that he had once had one. ‘It’s lack of practice that’s bad for me,’ he used to add. Whenever a new company arrived from Europe he would go to the impresario and complain of all the injustices under the sun, whereupon the impresario would commit a further one, and he would storm out railing against unjust practices. He could remember snatches of his parts, and even when an old man he would sometimes appear to be courting a Babylonian princess. Occasionally, without opening his mouth, he would murmur some passage as old as, or even older than, himself. Sometimes he came here to dine with me. One night, after a generous helping of Chianti, he repeated his customary assertion, and when I said that life might just as well be a sea voyage or a battle as an opera, he shook his head and replied, ‘Life is an opera: a grand opera. The tenor and the baritone contend for the soprano in the presence of the bass and supporting cast, or else it is the soprano and the contralto who contend for the tenor in the presence of the same bass and the same supporting cast. There are numerous choruses and ballets, and the orchestration is magnificent

‘But, my dear Marcolini …’

‘What … ?’

And after taking a sip of his liqueur he put down his glass and recounted the story of creation in the following words, which I shall summarize.

‘God is the poet. The music is by Satan, a young artist of great promise who had studied in the heavenly conservatory. The rival of Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, he objected to the preference they enjoyed in the distribution of prizes. It may be that the over-sweet, over-mystical music of his fellow pupils was repugnant to his essentially tragic genius. He organized a rebellion, which was discovered in time, and he was himself expelled from the conservatory. All would have been well if God had not written the libretto of an opera, which He threw away in the belief that such a form of entertainment was inappropriate to His eternity. Satan took the manuscript with him to hell. With the object of proving that he was superior to the others – and perhaps of seeking a reconciliation with heaven – he composed the music, and as soon as he had done so he took it to the Eternal Father.

‘“Lord, I have not forgotten the lessons I learned,” he said. “Here you have the music. Listen to it, alter it and have it played, and if you find it worthy of the heavens, admit me, with it, to kneel at your feet.”

‘“No,” replied the Lord. “I don’t want to hear anything.”

‘“But, Lord …”

‘“No! No! I’ll hear nothing.”

‘Satan went on pleading, with no more success, until God, tired and full of mercy, agreed to hear the whole opera performed but outside heaven. He created a special theatre, this planet, and invented a whole company, complete with leading parts, supporting cast, choruses and ballet dancers.

‘“Now listen to some rehearsals.”

‘“No, I’m not interested in rehearsals. I’m satisfied with having written the libretto. I’ll agree to dividing the royalties with you.”

‘This refusal was perhaps unfortunate, since from it resulted some difficulties which a previous hearing and amicable cooperation might have avoided. As it was, there are places where the verse goes to the right and the music to the left, though there are those who maintain that therein lies the beauty of the composition, avoiding monotony, and in this way explain the Eden trio, Abel’s aria and the choruses of the guillotine and slavery. Not infrequently the same situations are repeated without apparent justification. Certain themes become tiresome on account of repetition. Certain passages are obscure, with the conductor giving too much emphasis to the choruses, thereby causing confusion and concealing the true meaning. The orchestral parts, however, are handled with extraordinary skill. Such is the opinion of impartial observers.

‘Friends of the composer declare that it would be difficult to find such perfection in any other work. One or other admits there are a few blemishes, a fault here or there, but claims that these will be put right or justified in time and will disappear altogether, the composer having the right to amend his work wherever he considers it does not correspond to the sublime inspiration of the poet. Apologists of the latter, however, do not agree. They maintain that the libretto has been unduly sacrificed, that the music has distorted the meaning of the words, and though it is attractive in some parts, and worked with art in others, it is utterly different from and even at variance with the drama itself. In the poet’s text there is no reference to the grotesque; this is an addition made in imitation of The Merry Wives of Windsor. This point is contested by the Satanists with every appearance of reason. They claim that at the time when Satan composed his grand opera neither this farce nor Shakespeare had been born. They even affirm that the English poet can claim no more than to have transcribed the libretto of the opera with such art and so faithfully that it seems he himself is the author; obviously though, it is plagiarized.

‘This work’, continued the old tenor, ‘will endure as long as the theatre itself, it being impossible to calculate exactly when this will be demolished in accordance with some astronomic design. Its success is continually growing. The poet and the musician receive their royalties punctually, these not being the same since the rule for the division is that of the scriptures: ‘“Many are called, but few are chosen.” God receives in gold, Satan in paper money.’

‘It’s an amusing story …’

‘Amusing?’ he roared angrily but soon calmed down and replied, ‘My dear Santiago, I am not amusing; I detest amusing things. What I tell you is the pure and absolute truth. One day when all the books have been burned as being useless, someone will appear, maybe a tenor and possibly an Italian, to reveal this truth to mankind. Everything, my friend, is music. In the beginning was “do”, and from “do” came “re”, etc. This wine glass here’ (which he promptly refilled) ‘is a fleeting melody. Can’t you hear it? But then neither can you hear wood or stone though they’re all part of the same opera.’