Katia Chornik (Open University)
The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980), a leading Latin American figure who exerted a significant influence on writers belonging to the Magic Realism movement, incorporated music in his work to a greater extent than any other Latin American writer of his time. He was musically educated, conducted musical research, and was a concert promoter, librettist, music critic, and radio producer. This article discusses the role of music in Carpentier’s 1956 novella El acoso (The Chase) and aims to elucidate ways the author integrates the model of sonata form into the novella’s construction and establishes a narrative timeframe related to a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, op. 55 as suggested by Carpentier (“Las novelas El acoso y El siglo de las luces” 79). Secondly, it proposes that the novella is influenced by the author’s broadcasting experience and may refer to an actual recording of the Eroica. While I accept, in principle, Eric Prieto’s conclusion that “all attempts to apply concepts from one art to objects from the other are inherently metaphorical in nature” (“Metaphor and Methodology in Word and Music Studies” 49), what follows will suggest that the role of music in El acoso’s construction is perhaps more than metaphorical.
The main characters of El acoso are a revolutionary turned fugitive, a music student who sells tickets at the concert hall in Havana, and a prostitute named Estrella. Part I of the novella consists of three chapters, Part II of thirteen chapters, and Part III of two, unnumbered chapters. The first and third parts narrate events happening during a concert performance of the Eroica Symphony. Part II relates the recollections of the ex-revolutionary as he listens to the concert.
In Part I the ticket seller reads Romain Rolland’s Beethoven the Creator while the public comes into the concert hall. As the music starts the fugitive buys a ticket and hastily slips into the hall without waiting for his change. The ticket seller has eagerly anticipated the concert for weeks, studying the Beethoven score and listening to a recording on his gramophone; however the banknote left by the fugitive tempts him to change his plan and he sets off to visit Estrella. The fugitive, who has never attended a concert before, listens to the Eroica and during the “Funeral March” he remembers a recording of the symphony he once heard coming from a house that turns out to be the ticket seller’s. During this time the ticket seller is rejected by the prostitute, Estrella, because she claims the banknote is counterfeit, after which he returns to the concert hall shortly before the end of the Eroica.
Part II contains fragmentary recollections of the fugitive during the concert that cover a lengthy time span: from childhood episodes to the recent events leading to his flight from his former revolutionary comrades. After committing acts of terrorism he was imprisoned and threatened with torture, at which time he denounced several of the movement’s members to the police. Fearing revenge upon release, he hides in the house of an ill elderly woman for several days. While there he hears, from a neighbouring house, the ticket seller’s recording of Beethoven’s Eroica. When the old woman dies the fugitive sets out to visit Estrella and confesses to her his betrayal. Believing his life to be in danger, he tries to return to his hiding place but is spotted by his pursuers. In an attempt to elude them he returns to the concert hall. In Part III the fugitive remains until the end of the concert. The ticket seller, deeply disappointed about missing most of the performance and the inability to satisfy his sexual desires, returns to the concert hall. He hands over the forged banknote, which turns out to be genuine after all, to a policeman who has been summoned to the concert because the fugitive has been murdered.
Carpentier discusses El acoso in several interviews, articles, and programmes (cf. Lopez, Entrevistas: Alejo Carpentier). The most relevant for present purposes is César Leante’s “Confesiones sencillas de un escritor barroco” and Carpentier’s radio lecture “Las novelas El acoso y El siglo de las luces”. The following is a frequently cited passage from Leante’s article:
El acoso está estructurado en forma de sonata: Primera parte, exposición, tres temas, diecisiete variaciones y conclusión o coda. Un lector atento que conozca música puede observar fácilmente este desarrollo. (Confesiones sencillas 26-27)
It is unclear whether “the form of the sonata” refers to the sequence of movements in a sonata or sonata form, though the references to “exposition” and “recapitulation” are common designations for the first section of the latter. El acoso is clearly divided into three parts, yet Leante’s description of the novella’s form does not designate which elements are equivalent to each part. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that the “variations” correspond to Part II, and the “conclusion or coda” to Part III. According to the paratactic nature of each variation in a musical composition, it seems each chapter in Part II should be thought of as a variation. Thus Leante seems to err, inasmuch as there are thirteen, not seventeen, chapters in Part II.
Leante’s “Confesiones sencillas” is adapted from an interview with the author, despite the fact that virtually all questions are omitted and no information about the date of the conversation is given. The critical studies based on this article have not questioned its accuracy. By contrast, the following analysis will, instead, draw on what seems to be a more reliable source, Carpentier’s radio lecture “Las novelas El acoso y El siglo de las luces”. Nevertheless, even this source is not free of ambiguities.
Ahora bien, me dije: ¿no será posible, ya que voy a inscribir esta acción dentro del tiempo de duración de la Sinfonía Heroica, adaptar a la novela misma una forma, que es lo que se llama en música, la forma sonata? Cuando se habla de una sinfonía, se habla de un concerto, se habla de una sonata, se habla, en realidad, de una misma cosa. La sinfonía es una sonata para muchos instrumentos; el concerto es una sonata para orquesta o pequeño conjunto o conjunto de cámara y un instrumento que desempeña un papel capital. En cuanto a la sonata - invirtiendo el razonamiento - viene a ser una sinfonía, sencillamente, para pocos instrumentos e incluso, en ciertos casos, para dos instrumentos y, acaso, hasta para uno solo. Traté, pues, en El acoso, de adaptar la forma sonata y construí la novela de la manera siguiente: primera parte, tres personajes, tres temas; segunda parte de la novela, variaciones; tercera parte, recapitulación o coda. (79)
Carpentier’s account seems to blur the question of whether the pattern used is that of a sonata form or a sonata. The comment about ‘inverting the reasoning’ makes the point that the pattern can be abstracted. The remark about a symphony and a sonata being “the same thing” may be explained by the fact that, typically, the first movement of each is in sonata form. The remark about the symphony and a sonata “being the same” may be explained by the fact that in each the first movement is often in sonata form. Because Carpentier seems to deliberately appeal to sonata form, the following will use the analytical terminology associated with this musical form.
Part I is organised in three chapters, each giving prominence to a different character. Since Carpentier associates characters with musical themes and the narrative is clearly divided into three chapters it seems logical to infer that El acoso has an exposition with three subject groups. Although the majority of sonata expositions from the 18th Century to present day have two subject groups, some German theorists of the 19th Century conceived of the exposition as having three parts. A. B. Marx named the third section Schlussatz (Die Lehre von der musikalischen Komposition Vol. III 201-254) and J. C. Lobe referred to it as Schlussgruppe (Rushton, “Subject Group” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 647). Julio Bas’s Tratado de la forma musical, widely circulated in Latin America in the first half of the 20th Century, describes an “independent bridge section”, i.e. a bridge not inextricably linked to the first subject with its own thematic features (270). James Webster points out that “an important exposition form in Haydn comprises three parts: first group in the tonic; transition elided to an active second group avoiding firm cadences; contrasting closing group” (“Sonata Form” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Vol. XXIII 692).
In sonata form the subject areas are differentiated harmonically, while in El acoso the backdrop against which the different characters appear serves this purpose. It might even be argued that the concert hall corresponds to the tonic and the prostitute’s house to the contrasting key. A look at the events narrated in the third chapter of Part I reveals that this section does not conclude in Estrella’s house but in the concert hall, the tonic, which seems at odds with the harmonic structure of the musical form. However, the chord heard at the end of the exposition can be interpreted as either the dominant of the exposition’s tonic or the tonic of development, which follows.
If the association of characters with musical themes holds, Part II seems to be based on the theme of the fugitive. This portion of the novella parallels some very general features of the development section of sonata form. Firstly, it reshapes some of the thematic material of Part I, the main theme of the fugitive. Secondly, the last chapter of Part II ends with the fugitive’s entering the concert hall, a passage preparing the action of Part III. However, the fact that Part II is divided into thirteen chapters, in a clearly discontinuous sequence that the author refers to as “variations”, makes it clear that it is not strictly comparable with the development section of sonata form. The biblical epigraph for Part II, “and these things hast thou hid in thine heart: I know that this is with thee” (provide citation of Chapter and Verse) (Book of Job 10:13) from Job’s dramatic dialogue with three friends about the suffering inherent in human existence, points to the themes of reminiscence and suffering present in all thirteen chapters of Part II. Yet the basic question of the Book of Job, “Why do the innocent suffer?” is ironic when it becomes clear that the novella’s fugitive is not innocent.
Calvin S. Brown, in his "Theme and Variations as a Literary Form", identifies several ways both poetry and the novel can imitate the musical form. These include a change of imagery or its interpretation, the use of different meters or verse-forms, as well as the variation of sound-patterns, general content, tone, and point of view. Brown remarks that “as a general rule, in literature some fairly striking alteration is required if the effect of variation is to be achieved” (38). Carpentier achieves such differentiation in Part II of El acoso by altering the chronological sequence of the story in the different chapters. One could rearrange the chapters in Part II, supposing that there is a ‘present tense’ in each established by temporal and spatial references given by the fugitive’s narration, as follows: 3 4 5 2 6 7 8 9 10 11 1 12 13. However, such a chronology is not absolute for three reasons. Firstly, the reference to a specific event may recur in two or more chapters in the form of a ‘present’ incident, as flashback (analepsis) or a flash-forward (prolepsis). Secondly, the narration of most chapters in Part II is stream of consciousness, a style that may violate the norms of grammar, syntax, and logic (cf. Baldick, “Stream of consciousness” 244). Because it is not always clear what tense is implied in this style of narration, situating a particular event chronologically can be problematic. Lastly, all the events narrated in Part II take place prior to the concert performance of Beethoven’s Eroica, thus the idea of a ‘present tense’ for this part of the novella is ultimately illusory.
Part III brings back two of the three themes from Part I in inverted order: first the fugitive then the ticket seller. Carpentier’s description of this section as either a “recapitulation or coda” (emphasis added) may seem unusual if the model is sonata form, for the recapitulation is an inherent part of sonata form and the coda, an extended section in its own right that comes after the closing group, may or may not be employed by the composer. But if Part II is conceived as a freestanding set of variations then it is theoretically plausible to read Part III as its coda. However this interpretation is at odds with the argument that Carpentier adapts sonata form in El acoso.
In conclusion, the organisation of the themes within chapters and the absence of a development section reveal that El acoso has only a loose relation with typical examples of sonata form. Instead, Carpentier seems to be holding different musical forms in tension. Part I and III may be compared with a sonata without development, e.g. a sonatina. Alternatively, El acoso may be interpreted as a set of variations incorporating sonata form procedures. Most telling in this regard is Carpentier’s use of word play, relying on the musical connotations of such words as “developed” and “recapitulated”.
In the previously quoted radio programme Carpentier established various temporal links between the timeframe of the novella and the performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Moreover, in this programme he relates that the inspiration for El acoso came after attending a performance of Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers, during which a man was shot, at Havana University.
Poco a poco, fui pensando que podía hacerse una novela en que el tiempo de lectura concordara con el tiempo de la acción, y el tiempo de la acción, a su vez, con una unidad de medida, es decir, con algo que, por sus limitaciones de tiempo, pudiera darle al lector la idea de que la acción transcurre entre tales y tales minutos. Se me ocurrió que durante una ejecución de la Sinfonía Heroica en el teatro, entonces llamado Auditorium, y hoy Teatro Amadeo Roldán, podía inscribirse la tragedia, con otra tragedia a la vez dentro, que es la tragedia de Las Coéforas, de Esquilo, representada en la Universidad. Por lo tanto, la novela El acoso, que no es una novela muy larga, que es una novela que creo que puede leerse en unas tres horas, transcurre dentro del tiempo de duración de una correcta ejecución de la Sinfonía Heroica de Beethoven, o sea, generalmente, son unos cincuenta y tantos minutos. (79)
Just as the parallel between the novella’s structure and sonata form appear somehow ambiguous, so does Carpentier’s idea about the parallel between the time it takes to read a story and the time elapsed within the story’s narrative.
Gérard Genette describes the most common relations of duration in literature in the following terms:
Parts I and III correspond to Genette’s description of a scene. The time needed to read both Parts I and III of El acoso, what Carpentier calls “the action” of the novella, might correspond to the length of a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, but the time needed to read the whole novella is much longer. Two relations are possible in Part II. The fugitive’s memories, spanning from his childhood to the events prior to the concert, are a summary according to Genette. Consequently, the total reading time of three hours as estimated by Carpentier, including Parts I and III, is far shorter than the timeframe of all the events narrated in the novella. But the ‘real time’ during which these memories are recalled by the fugitive seems more pertinent. As the character’s descriptions suggest, ‘real time’ is at standstill in Part II. Thus this portion of the novella resembles Genette’s stasis.
Ha concluido la marcha fúnebre, [
] ahora habrá algo como una danza; luego, la música a saltos, alegre. (Carpentier, El acoso 26-27, end of chapter 2 of Part I)
Likewise, the narrator adopts a similar stance later in the story.
[Los músicos] terminaron de tocar su música de jaurías bendecidas, su misa de cazadores; luego el silencio, tantas veces “escuchado” en las terribles soledades del Mirador [
] tras una pausa, es la otra música, la música a saltitos. (151, beginning of chapter 3 of Part III)
The timing of the performance of the Eroica is also important in the plot of the novella. and generates irony at the expense of the ticket seller, who judges the live performance in relation to the duration of the recording the owns. The following passages provide key information. Before the ticket seller leaves for the prostitute’s house we are told,
Nadie, aquí, podría jactarse de haberse acercado a la Sinfonía con mayor devoción que él, al cabo de semanas de estudio, partitura en mano, ante los discos viejos que todavía sonaban bien. Aquel director de reciente celebridad no podía dirigirla mejor que el insigne especialista de sus placas. (16)
Upon his return to the concert hall,
“¿Falta mucho?” - preguntó [el portero], sorprendido de verlo regresar. “Unos nueve minutos” - respondió, añadiendo luego, para alardear de saber: “Bien dirigida la obra no debe pasar de cuarenta y seis [minutos]”. (38)
And at the end of the performance, El director es infecto; llevó la Sinfonía de tal modo que no debe haber durado sus cuarenta y seis minutos (159).
Might Carpentier have in mind a particular broadcasting practice and/or a specific recording in these passages? He tells us that the ticket seller’s recording was “old” at the time of the story’s setting, i.e. the 1940’s, and that El acoso was set “some twenty years ago” during the chaotic times following the student-led revolt of 1933 that overthrew dictator Gerardo Machado (Las novelas El acoso y El siglo de las luces 79). Most sources containing timings published from the 1920s were intended to be used by radio programmers. Furthermore, Carpentier’s experience as a radio producer for three decades strongly suggests that the idea of a particular performance of the symphony in El acoso is linked to such activity. It should be noted that the timing cited by Carpentier in his 1965 radio account, “fifty-odd minutes” (as mentioned in the previous section), is different than the recording of close to forty-six minutes mentioned by the ticket seller. Performances of this length were typical during the 1920’s and 30’s.
The various clues given within the novella suggest a 78rpm recording made by an important conductor that would sound “old” at the time of novella’s 1940s setting. It would have a total length of approximately forty-six minutes and a noticeable pause somewhere between the “music for hunting dogs that have been blessed” by the “huge springs” (likely the outer sections of the Scherzo and Trio played by the horns) and the “music in little jumps” (likely the section very near the beginning of the Finale where the strings and woodwind play out of synchronisation). The characters mention the length and the pause on more than one occasion, therefore these features seem particularly relevant.
The following recordings have total timings of less than forty-six minutes:
Hans Pfitzner’s version, the closest to the ticket seller’s reference, seems a possible front-runner. Pfitzner, a well-known composer and conductor, shared with Richard Strauss, Oscar Fried, and Erich Kleiber the recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies series launched by Deutsche Grammophon in 1927 commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Beethoven’s death. Yet Pfitzner’s version does not have a particularly prominent pause in the Scherzo or the Finale. One may suggest that the forty-six-minute timing comes from an original 78rpm transferred to or re-issued on LP, the common format in the 1950s. Considering this, Erich Kleiber’s 1950 Eroica seems a plausible source, as it was recorded on 78rpm and re-issued on LP (cf. Hunt, More 20th Century Conductors 268). It lasts 45’ 20.4” and there is a luftpause in the Scherzo.
Carpentier’s journalistic articles add significant contextual evidence. In these he referred to Kleiber, who he knew personally, more than any other conductor. In 1956, the year of the conductor’s death, Carpentier wrote four articles about him. This is extremely suggestive as El acoso was first published in that same year. Carpentier calls Kleiber, who settled in Argentina and worked regularly in several Latin American countries, “one of the most illustrious conductors of the present time [
]” and praises Kleiber’s “understanding of styles, his cultural knowledge, his prodigious musical intelligence” (“Kleiber vendrá a Venezuela” 364-365). Gerhard Brunner, writing about Kleiber in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, points out that “[he] rehearsed with an almost fanatical ardour and aimed at the utmost possible precision” (660). Carpentier also mentions the conductor’s punctilious nature. “When Erich Kleiber was appointed conductor of the Havana PO, he transformed that symphonic ensemble into a collective instrument of magnificent precision (“El recuerdo de Kleiber II” 369). Leonardo Acosta argues that Carpentier often gives a certain “twist” to the intertexts incorporated in his novels (cf. Alejo en Tierra Firme 119). This may explain the issue of the date of Kleiber’s recordings, which do not match the time of the novella’s setting. If this is the case, it means that the novella takes place in a sort of virtual time with which historical details are not absolutely synchronous.
Carpentier’s 1965 radio account has been identified as the most reliable and relevant source for the analysis of formal analogies to music El acoso. In such account, Carpentier refers to sonata form, but leaves the exact nature of its literary adaptation ambiguous. Calvin S. Brown refers to literary attempts at sonata form as follows.
As soon as the author [
] tries to make a literary form which shall parallel the musical pattern with any exactness - he becomes inextricably entangled. When this point is reached, he may do any one of three things. He may simply abandon the attempt at parallelism with music, and go off on his own tack as a writer. [
] He may try to stay with the musical form, but be forced so to adapt it such that it becomes almost unrecognizable [
]. Finally, he may carry the parallelism as far as his medium will allow, and then try, by means entirely outside of his work [
] to improve the parallelism by forcing analogies where none really exist. (Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts 176)
In his radio programme Carpentier directs the reader to these formal analogies using puns that refer more to the general, rather than exact, meanings of musical terms. In the end, Carpentier teases the reader because it is only after a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica is recorded that a timing, such as that mentioned in El acoso, can be calculated.
1. This study comes from my ongoing doctoral studies at the Open University. It is conceived as the starting point for a broader discussion of the role of music in Carpentier’s novels. I thank the WMA for giving me the opportunity to publish this early piece of research. Return to the article
2. El acoso is structured in the form of a sonata: first part, exposition, three subjects, seventeen variations and conclusion or coda. Any careful reader who knows about music can easily observe this development (26-27). Return to the article
3. I said to myself: would not it be possible, as I am going to inscribe this action within the duration of the Eroica Symphony, to adapt a form to the novel itself, a form which in music is called sonata form? When one talks about a symphony, a concerto, a sonata, one is talking, in fact, about the same thing. A symphony is a sonata for many instruments; a concerto is a sonata for orchestra or small group or chamber ensemble and an instrument that plays a key role. With regard to the sonata—inverting the reasoning, it becomes a symphony, simply, for just a few instruments and even, in some cases, for two instruments and, maybe, even for only one. I tried, then, in El acoso, to adapt sonata form and constructed the novel in the following way: first part, three characters, three themes; second part, variations; third part, recapitulation or coda” (79). Return to the article
4. In a musical sense, this epigraph may be interpreted as a “borrowed theme”, that is the quotation of a popular of well-known melody or harmonic scheme that used as a basis for a set of variations. Return to the article
5. Frances W. Weber has recomposed the chronology of Part II, not by chapters but by events (cf. "El acoso: Alejo Carpentier's War on Time" 441). Return to the article
6. In music, thematic material from the exposition may be omitted but the most important ideas are usually recapitulated. In this sense, the absence of the theme of Estrella in Part III is not necessarily problematic. Return to the article
7. Increasingly, I was thinking that it was possible to write a novel in which the time taken to read it would equate with the duration of the action, and the duration of the action, in turn, would equate with a unit of measurement, that is, with something that, by its time limits, could give the reader the idea that the action takes place between such and such minutes. It occurred to me that during a performance of the Eroica Symphony in the theatre, then called Auditorium and nowadays Teatro Amadeo Roldán, the tragedy could be inserted with another tragedy inside, which is the tragedy of Choephoroe [The Libation Bearers] by Aeschylus, performed at the university. Therefore the novella El acoso, which is not a very long novella, which is a novella that I think can be read in three hours, takes place within the duration of a correct performance of the Eroica Symphony by Beethoven, that is, generally, fifty-odd minutes. (79) Return to the article
8. Genette compares historical time with the number of pages per event, arguing that reading times vary considerably from reader to reader and an ideal average speed can only be determined by fictional means. However, the use of page lengths seems equally fictional. Inasmuch as Carpentier refers to reading times and speeds, my argument to refer to the same notions. Return to the article
9. The funeral march is over, [
] now comes something like a dance; then the hopping, happy music (The Chase 18-19). Return to the article
10. [the musicians] finished playing the music for hunting dogs that have been blessed, finished the hunters’ Mass; then came the silence he’d heard so often in the terrible solitude of the Belvedere [
] after a pause comes the other music, the music in little jumps (115-116). Return to the article
11. No one here could boast of having approached the symphony with greater devotion than he [the ticket seller], after weeks of study, score in hand, standing before the old records that still sounded fine. The newly famous conductor could not direct it better than the illustrious expert on his records (10). Return to the article
12. 'Is there much to go?' he [the doorman] asked, surprised to see the ticket seller return. ‘About nine minutes,’ the ticket seller answered, adding, just to show off, ‘If it’s properly directed, the work should not exceed forty-six minutes’ (27-28). Return to the article
13. The conductor is vile; the way he led the symphony, it couldn’t have lasted its full forty-six minutes (122). Return to the article
14. Although live performances were common in broadcasting studios, measuring timings from recordings stands as a more objective and practical method. Return to the article
15. There is seldom a long pause between the Scherzo and the Finale, and often it is done attacca. The sustained chord of four bars duration at the end of the Scherzo’s Trio, as well as the fermata before the “music in little jumps” in the Finale, might sound like a ‘pause’ to some. In theory the pause could result from the changing of sides. Return to the article
16. The timing for these recordings comes from Eric Grunin's Eroica Project (http//:grunin.com/eroica/index.htm.). This website seems to have the most comprehensive data on timings of the Eroica, listing the durations of over 450 recordings from 1924 to present day. It should be noted that durations of 78rpm recordings were not originally published on original issues or in contemporary reviews such as The Gramophone, and that timings vary depending on the calibration of the reproducing player. On the An Eroica Project website, the durations of original 78rpm were obtained using modern equipment and software. Return to the article
17. There are some fine points about measuring 78rpm timings to consider. The speed on a reproducing player is irregular and long pieces come on many sides, e.g. Pfitner's Eroica is on 8 sides. Only in 1950's broadcasting would there be a chance to check the exact speed with a stoboscope (an instrument studying perodic motion or determining speeds of rotation). Return to the article
18. Jonathan Woolf, in his review of Erich Kleiber: Decca Recordings 1949-1955, refers to the luftpause in Kleiber’s 1950 Eroica, which however seems to have been edited in the CD re-issue: “Demerits are the lack of the first movement exposition repeat [
], a few orchestral imperfections, and an idiosyncratic luftpause in the Scherzo, which was something he clearly brooded over because he rectified it in Vienna [in his 1953 recording with the Vienna PO].” Return to the article
19. See “El recuerdo de Kleiber I”, “El recuerdo de Kleiber II”, “Una pérdida irreparable” and “Genio y figura” in Carpentier's Ese músico que llevo dentro Vol. I. Return to the article
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