Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/11/2010

Madama Butterfly, Jacob Wrestling with the Stranger, and the “Fabric of Meaning”

OK. A completely banal (because it’s so obvious) statement to begin: Puccini composed more than one unusual operatic scene. The orchestral interlude in Madama Butterfly is, as far as I know, unique in all of opera. Unique so there’s not a video of it on YouTube. Well, how could there be? Nothing happens. Its sweetly voluptuous music condenses Butterfly’s years of waiting for the egomaniacal sex-addict father of her son to return to steal the boy into one long instrumental elegy. Pinkerton’s sense of entitlement is so strong that he brings his wife with him to wrestle the boy away from his mother. It’s one of the most offensive moments in all of opera, but the music is so sweet no one seems to notice. “Oh, poor Butterfly,” audiences seem to sigh in unison, completely ignoring the fact that it’s not Butterfly’s tragedy but Pinkerton’s unconscionable abuse that makes the story.

Oh well. Anything for art!

I woke up this morning with the orchestral interlude going through my head. That’s better than having the writing I need to be doing already in my mind and waking me up at 5 AM.

It was a strange occurrence. I haven’t heard Madama Butterfly since the Dallas Opera production in May, the last opera in the inaugural season of the new Winspear Opera House. If you think you are an opera buff or an architecture buff or a Dallas incongruities buff and haven’t seen the Winspear, you are not really any of those buffs. It belongs in the Dallas anomaly category because its being in Dallas, of all places, borders on the improbable, the implausible, the impossible.  Bill and Margot Winspear’s $42 million.

Here I am with the orchestral interlude from Madama Butterfly floating through my mind at 5 AM for no good reason, even as I’m making coffee. The mind can be a pain in the ass.

What the interlude replaced in my imagination was a hymntune I heard yesterday. St. Michael and All Angels again. Can’t seem to stay away. My going to church at this point is as much an anomaly as the opera house. But there I was. Again. The hymntune is in my head because it was given short shrift. It was the third of the communion hymns, and we sang only the first stanza because the communion-making was over.

The hymn and tune are at number 347 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982. The hymn (“Go forth with God, Go to the world in peace”) is not of much import to me, but the tune is one of those that gets in my head and will not go away. I’m grateful to Puccini for driving it out this morning. Erik Routley, himself an anomaly as an important English church musician who was not Anglican—Methodist—wrote the tune. The name of the tune is Litton, named for James Litton, one of America’s most prominent church musicians of the era just past.

The tune Litton got under my skin immediately when I first heard it because the rhythm is skewed to fit the text. The second “Go” is on the offbeat and then held longer than expected to catch up to the regular beat of the music. So simple. So effective. So unconsciously (or consciously) satisfying. It is what gives the tune its “meaning.”  It emphasizes “go,” which is, of course, the point of the text. The musical rhetoric supports the textual rhetoric, that is

. . . the effect of syncopation is there as part of the basic primary beat. The desire of the listener [the congregation singing] for simplicity and unity of beat gives [the tune] its special feeling of urgency, of striving for the point of metric coincidence. . . (1)

The resolution of rhythm is the imperative, “Go!”


Jacob and Stranger, Gustave Dore, 1855

Jacob and Stranger, Gustave Dore, 1855


My favorite Routley tune is Woodbury. He wrote it for a Charles Wesley hymn (a Methodist for a Methodist), “Come, O thou traveler unknown” (Hymnal 1982, number 639). The hymn rehearses the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel unknown man (2). In the story Jacob, the Hebrew Patriarch wrestles with some guy in the middle of the night (religious folks insist it was an angel, but the Bible does not say that). They have an argument about names. The stranger renames Jacob as Israel because he “has striven with God and prevailed.” The stranger won’t tell Jacob/Israel his name, so Jacob gives the place a name instead, a name that means, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Wesley reduces all of this to a soliloquy by Jacob which has him say to the stranger, “Yield to me now, for I am weak but confident in self-despair.” The conversation ends with the stranger saying that his name is “Love.”  Routley’s tune is haunting. It’s dissonant and somehow manages to reach its apex at the right musical place in each stanza. Amazing.

I love the idea of telling God (or at least an angel) to “yield” to me because I am in “self-despair.” Does everyone want to see God face-to-face and be preserved? or just me?

Now I’m at the point in my writing that I reach nearly every day wondering how to let anyone in on the secret of how this all fits together.

It’s the “anything for art” statement that I’m working toward here. Butterfly’s world is shattered during that orchestral interlude. She prepares for Pinkerton’s arrival, not knowing he is bringing his wife essentially to kidnap the kid. Puccini, as far as I can tell with my ignorance of Italian, wrote nothing overtly religious into the opera.  We all know opera is a completely secular art form (unless you’re Wagner trying to create a new mythology).

I love Puccini’s music. And I love church music. And both, I think, for the same reasons. I have quoted Ralph Vaughn-Williams here before about the “uselessness” of music. But music, like all of our subconscious activity serves a purpose. The purpose is not “practical” because

only some of our expressions are signs, indicative or mnemonic, and belong to. . . common sense; and only a small and relatively unimportant part are immediate signs of feeling. (3)

This music we love—the music we sing in church; the music I perform; the music we all listen to, whether it’s opera, church, or Lady Gaga on our iPods—helps keep us (I wish this didn’t sound so pedantic and as if I knew whereof I speak) human. I know it keeps me sane; my guess is it does you, too.

But the main lines of logical structure in all meaning-relations are. . . the correlation of symbols with concepts. . . which gives rise to. . . the assignment of elaborately patterned symbols to certain analogues in experience, the basis of all interpretation and thought. These are, essentially, the relationships we use in weaving the intricate web of meaning which is the real fabric of human life. (4)

Puccini. Madama Butterfly. Bill and Margot Winspear. St. Michael and All Angels. Dallas. Jacob/Israel. Erik Routley. Charles Wesley. James Litton. William B. Meyer. Stravinsky. Lady Gaga. iPod. Susanne K. Langer. The fabric.

Woven together with my new shoes from yesterday, does a fabric of meaning invite hope?
(1) Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. 121. Meyer’s analysis is of “The Soldier’s March” in Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, but it is applicable here.
(2) Genesis 32:24-32
(3) Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1957. 43
(4) Langer, 77-78.


  1. strangely enough … I understand,
    and you know that particular Biblical story is one of the foundational pieces in my understanding the spiritual life and my relationship with God – thanks



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