Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dr. Seuss and Maurice Ravel: A Convergence of Crescendos




Dr. Seuss's first picture book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, showcases the visual imagination of Marco, the story's protagonist. What follows is a consideration of what Marco might have experienced had he indulged his aural imagination to the same extent.

What if the brass band on Mulberry Street had played Maurice Ravel's Bolero?

The entirety of this conjecture is based on an apparent convergence of forms in Dr. Seuss's Mulberry Street and Ravel's Bolero. Apropos of much, it all begins with rhythm.

Many of us in the kidlit community are familiar with the apocryphal-seeming, but true, story of Ted Geisel writing And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street to the chug of a ship's engine. In poetic lingo, Dr. Seuss interprets this seafaring sonic experience into a predominantly anapestic meter when crafting Marco's fantastic imaginings.

In the case of Ravel, he begins with the rhythm of the bolero, a Spanish dance form. From it, he spins a fifteen-minute long crescendo, sustained only by a masterful orchestration and the use of dynamics. The entire piece is anchored by the relentless rhythm of a basso ostinato, Ravel's equivalent of a chugging ship engine.

Interestingly enough, NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman notes in "Bolero's Industrious Nature" that, "Ravel said the pulsing, rhythmic composition was inspired by one of the factories he had visited with his father, who was an engineer."

Whether the inspiration springs from the mechanical music of a ship's engine, or that of an industrial factory, these two works rely on repetitive rhythmic structures as a foundation for their respective fireworks shows.

Formally, Mulberry Street can be seen as a visual crescendo. What Marco actually sees, a dull horse and cart, is transformed time and again into increasingly more exciting possibilities. From a zebra to a charioteer, to a reindeer, a sleigh, an elephant, a rajah, and so on, the images become "louder" and "louder," climaxing into a visual cacophony only Seuss could create.

In Dr. Seuss: An American Icon, kidlit scholar Philip Nel has this to say about the rhythm of Seuss's verse, "It aids in building up suspense, amplifying the outrageousness of the tall tale as it grows taller and taller."

And here's what composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein had to say about Ravel's Bolero on a Young People's Concert episode:

"It's just one long tune repeated over and over, with the orchestration changing on each repeat, gradually getting bigger and louder and richer, adding to itself, growing and growing until it finally ends in the biggest orchestral scream you ever heard."

When comparing Mulberry Street and Bolero in the most basic formal terms, both would appear to begin as whispers and end as roars. In works like these, tension and excitement are created by "amplifying the outrageousness." And before these works conclude, in the words of Leonard Bernstein again, "...you'll have heard all kinds of strange sounds, colors and combinations."

Bolero's "strange sounds" include, among others, a French horn, celesta, two piccolos, and a flute playing together to create a completely new instrumental timbre. Indeed, Ravel's innovative orchestration and his command of tonal color shine through as the crowning achievements of Bolero.
Mulberry Street's "strange sounds" are its strange sights, culminating in a virtual circus-parade block party, complete with confetti and police retinue.
Seuss colored word and image with the same genius that Ravel colored sound. In Mulberry Street and Bolero, the literal rhythms can be tapped, if not the metaphoric ones topped. In the modified words of Marco, "And that is a rhythm that no one can beat, and to think that I heard it on Mulberry Street."

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