Melodic Tropes in Sciarrino’s "Vanitas"

In Vanitas, Sciarrino makes use of only one overarching distinct melodic figure which accompanies the voice through the hour-long work. Since he rarely deviates from such figure, I hear the text as slowly neutralized by the repetition of what constitutes a universal morphologically identical melodic trope which envelope rarely changes: From silence, to a crescendo, to an ending in a tail of chromatic notes (a tremor of sorts), to a final return to silence.

Fig.1 Universal melodic trope as notated in mm.22-24 in Sciarrino’s Vanitas.

The provenance of this trope’s expressive power is to be found in the European tradition of the minor second portamento typical of a lament. Fig. 2 therefore,should be viewed as a reduction of the melodic trope to its most basic shape.

Fig.2 Basic shape of Sciarrino’s melodic trope as notated in mm.92-93 in Sciarrino’s Vanitas.

Sciarrino’s variations of the trope are significantly limited towards the rearrangement of its envelope, and in only a few instances does he notate its inversion. In Fig.3, Sciarrino’s minimal rearrangement of the elements in the original trope’s envelope by starting with a tremor (instead of its usual position at the end of a long sustain), and ending with an upward portamento (instead of the usual downward one), should nevertheless be understood as inhabiting the same universe as the original trope in Fig.1 .

Fig.3 Reconfiguration and slight variation of the work’s basic melodic trope as notated in mm.141-142 in Sciarrino’s Vanitas.

Fig.4 below presents a longer passage exemplifying the obsessive insistence and pervasiveness of the trope.

Fig.4 Longer passage showcasing the pervasiveness of the universal melodic trope as notated in Sciarrino’s Vanitas, Ultime Rose Pg.48.

The intelligibility of the text will depend upon the following contingent question: Does the comprehensibility of the text in Vanitas depend solely on one’s comprehension of the words (and their meaning) set to music? In my own understanding and practice, the answer is a resounding no. The paradox here lies in that in one sense, constricting the words to be sung according to only one universal melodic formula makes the words more tangible, however, the same formula (in conjunction with its instrumental echo in the cello) absolves them of their definite meaning (e.g. ‘morte,’ ‘rose,’ ‘imago’ etc. are sung as melodically undifferentiated) . The absence of meaning however finds its equivalence in a stronger presence of sound. The phonetic material is thus liberated from its semantic dimension. “When the voice is entrusted to silence, nothing remains but the mouth, its cavity, the saliva. The open lips as a boundary to emptiness,” writes Sciarrino.