I HAD to do an analysis of something that Placido Domingo has sung … just so I’d have an excuse to listen to his voice over and over for a half hour. Hehe.
The piece I chose was Il ètait une fois à la cour d'Eisenach, a chanson from the prologue of the famous opera, Les Contes D’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach. The opera was Offenbach’s last work; he died halfway through its completion. The plot tells of famous poet, musician, and author E.T.A. Hoffmann, combining fantasy from his stories with his own biographical life. The story centers on three loves of his life: a doll, a singer, and a courtesan. The three stories are framed by a prologue and an epilogue, in which Hoffmann is in love with a famous opera singer who is performing Don Giovanni in a nearby opera house. In a tavern, Hoffmann is goaded on by his drinking buddies to tell the tragic tale of his three loves.
The chanson occurs in the prologue, as the chorus asks Hoffmann to tell one of his stories about the dwarf, Kleinzach. Hoffmann sings about the dwarf, describing his awkward appearance. In the middle of the chanson, Hoffmann’s mind wanders away from his story to his current lover, the opera singer. He recalls their last rendezvous and declares his undying love. Suddenly, a student wakes him out of his reverie and encourages him to continue with his song. Hoffmann reluctantly and half-heartedly continues his song about Kleinzach.
Hoffmann sings most of the piece by himself, although in the verses about Kleinzach the chorus echoes the end of each phrase.
There are two identical phrases ending on a AC, followed by another, longer phrase ending on a PAC. This phrase is repeated, with some interpolation that finally ends on a PAC. I would describe this as a phrase group – it’s not built like a period.
The first verse is repeated again – the song is built mostly in strophic form, with couplets – meaning the same melody, but different lyrics.
The third verse is introduced, but the melody change abruptly when Hoffmann begins his reverie. We come into a broader, more dramatic B section – sweeping string passages and many crescendos. I consider this simple ternary form, because this B section is independent in melody from the A section. It is less tonally stable, but has its own expositional material.
The B section ends completely – it’s closed. There is a pause in the music, and the student enquires, “What about Kleinzach?” Hoffmann awakes from his daydream, and goes back into the A section – a fourth verse. This last verse is identical to the previous verses.