The symbiotic relationship between music and drama, and the use of motifs in the music of Les Misérables

November 17 2020, by Saskia Frayling

In the musical Les Misérables, the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, composed several leitmotivs which occur at important points in the storyline of the musical. There is a symbiotic relationship between the text, music, and drama, meaning that the music closely follows what the text and drama are expressing. The combination of leitmotifs and the symbiotic relationship between the text, music, and drama, creates a sense of musical unity throughout Les Misérables, as the musical materials are reused.

Towards the beginning of the musical, the piece “At the end of the day”, is sung by the factory workers as they sing of how miserable life is. The bleak lyrics such as “one day nearer to dying”, create a sense of the extreme poverty, and issues that these women have to face in their everyday lives. Schönberg shows this through the music with a full orchestral introduction, which crescendos as the tempo increases, before the voices join in. The first two verses are in a minor key, however the third verse modulates to a major key as it looks towards the hope of tomorrow. The piece then becomes taunting as a woman taunts Fantine, before it is turned into an accusation, and finally it is used at the climax in canon. Here, Schönberg has created more and more emotional weight as the piece progresses, as the audience sees the symbiosis of the drama and music, and so they empathise with Fantine as they are told her story. In addition to this, the theme reappears later on in the musical, which creates a sense of musical unity.

Another example is the melody of “On my Own”, which aside from the main song, is used many times throughout the musical. When Jean Val Jean is freed in the prologue, he sings the melody of “On My Own” and is accompanied by the orchestral accompaniment of the song, however it is to different lyrics. Shortly after, it is sung in a more determined way by Jean Val Jean as he promises to find and look after Fantine’s child, Cosette. Later, as Fantine lies in her death bed, she sings the melody again, with a slight sense of madness, as she imagines her daughter beside her. The last time it is heard is at Jean Val Jean’s deathbed at the end of the musical. At this point, the melody carries emotional weight, as it has progressed in meaning throughout the duration of the show.

Another motif that Schönberg composed is the Military motif, or the motif used in times in which a person is being accused by the authorities. This motif has a sense of urgency, and power, with its strong rhythms, and mostly conjunct melody line. It first appears in the prologue, when Jean Val Jean is caught stealing the candlesticks, and the authorities sing the motif as an accusation. The same motif is used by Javert when he is later called to a crime scene, and shortly after is used by Gavroche, now to mock Javert. It is interesting how Schönberg has been able to change the dynamic of the motif at this point, in order to mock the authorities, with an almost light-hearted tone. However, the motif quickly returns to its original sinister tone, when Javert sings the motif, as he stares into the distance before committing suicide. This creates even more tension for the audience, as at this point, they are familiar with the melody, and so it reminds them of the journey Javert has had up to this point. Here the motif becomes slower and slower, like a recitative, which builds tension, and suggests that Javerts authorial responsibility is what has led him to his downfall. As Javert falls to his death, the orchestra plays a reprise of “Stars”, which increases the emotional weight of the moment.

Interestingly, Schönberg also used the military motif in Jean Val Jeans storyline. At the beginning of the musical when Jean Val Jean has an epiphany after being released from prison, the motif is used to show his desire to be a new man. Here, Schönberg has used the motif to create a kind of symmetry between Jean Val Jean and Javert. They seem to spend their whole lives running from and chasing each other, when in reality the music shows us that they are actually very similar and are both essentially suffering from a crisis of identity.

The song “One day more”, is used as the finale of act one, as it ties together all the drama of the act, by consisting of a combination of four songs. The song includes several counterpoints, with each character singing a different melody before joining together in the chorus. Each theme that the characters sing reflects their personality, and their role in the storyline. An example of this is the Thernadiers who sing their melody from “Master of the House”, which provides some comic relief as it is a light humorous melody line. The song includes reprises of “Who Am I”, “I Dreamed a Dream”, “On my own”, and “Master of the House”, the combination of these songs shows the audience how all of the characters’ lives are interconnected, creating a sense of musical unity.

At the end of the show, when Jean Val Jean dies, “Do you hear the people sing” is first heard softly, as if it is in the distance, before it crescendos and builds in texture, to a strong reprise of the song. Schönberg not only uses this dramatic device as a reprise of the song, it also creates a sense of hope for the future, and it almost seems to turn Jean Val Jean into an icon of the revolution. The final bars of the musical are the same powerful chords that are heard at the very beginning of the show, which creates not only a sense of unity, but also the idea that history can repeat itself.

In conclusion, I feel that Schönberg created a powerful musical, with a strong sense of musical unity due to its recurring motifs, and symbiotic relationship between the music and drama. The way that motifs are reused in different contexts, enables them to carry more and more emotional weight as the musical progresses. In addition to this, Schönberg composed the music to shift in tone with the drama, which created a natural flow between the music and the drama, making Les Misérables an emotional, and powerful work.

Saskia Frayling, L6