Setting Brecht: Daniel Daly’s new ‘Mother Courage’ music

Eugene composer creates a 21st century score for University of Oregon’s production of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s political classic

by GARY FERRINGTON

Mother Courage and Her Children without music is like Shakespeare without poetry,” says University of Oregon theater professor Michael Malek Najjar. Though Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 anti-war play is not a musical, music is key to telling the “cautionary tale about the mendacity of capitalism dressed up as patriotism leading to war.” Najjar says the play requires military marches, piano ballads, haunting elegies and more.

For next month’s University of Oregon Theatre production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner’s 2006 contemporary English adaptation, Najjar wanted a new score from a composer who would be “both classically trained and theatrically oriented to find a balance between the classical and contemporary musical needs of such a production.”

UO’s ‘Mother Courage’: Kattrin (Madeline Williams), Swiss Cheese (Julian Steinberg), and The Chaplain (Deshaun Valentino-Vegas) are scolded by Mother Courage (Penta Swanson). Photo: Charlianne Elsdon.

He found an ideal candidate on campus in Daniel Daly, a doctoral student in the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance composition studio with whom he had collaborated on the University Theatre’s production of Scorched.

“I have always been fascinated with his deep understanding of music, his incredible sense of how music can create dramatic mood, and his astonishingly beautiful compositional style,” Najjar explains. Unlike Scorched, which required music that underscored dramatic scenes, Mother Courage requires a composer to match their musical form to Brechtian lyrics… and adjust their own rhythms to match Brecht (and Kushner’s) idiosyncratic styles. Daniel is a great theatrical collaborator and has always created music that elevates our productions.”

Daly seems a natural to compose for theater. After all, he was born in Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where some of his music has premiered. He frequently situates his music within a theatrical context and specializes in creating text for music. The author of When Waters Whisper: The Secret Tragedy of Harper Quin, a fantasy novel, Daly’s primary interest is storytelling. His compositions have been performed by Portland new music ensemble fEAR no MUSIC, New York’s celebrated Imani Winds, and acclaimed soprano Estelí Gomez in Portland and at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium in Eugene. Daly founded and directs sonos domum, an Oregon Composers Forum ensemble within the UO School of Music and Dance.

Responding to Character

When Najjar approached Daly about composing Mother Courage’s score, his opera The Banshee, with its lyrical “Do You Remember?” and “Cold Wind” had just premiered at the University of Oregon’s Music Today Festival last May.

He began by reading the play for the first time. It recounts the journey of canteen owner Anna Fierling, nicknamed “Mother Courage,” during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), as she profits by selling provisions and liquor from her wagon to both Protestant troops and, when the tide of battle favors them, the Catholics.

Composer Daniel Daly. Photo: Gary Ferrington

Even though Fierling tries to care for and protect her three children, sons Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and daughter Kattrin, while simultaneously pursuing a profitable livelihood from the war, she and the siblings make choices that result in the death of each child in one incident or another until at war’s end Mother Courage finds herself alone and impoverished.

Daly studied the lyrics of every song that appears in the script “to understand the dramatic context in which the song appears,” he says, and come to inhabit “the perspective of the character who is singing.” He would speak the lyrics aloud until he discovered a plausible and authentic way to deliver those phrases. “That rhetorical information translated into musical choices of tempo, dynamic, rhythm, and eventually, melody and harmony,” Daly says about his compositional process.

Score from ‘Mother Courage’ by Daniel Daly.

“Michael and I agreed that I would compose each of these songs as an expression of the character singing them,” Daly explains. “We were not interested in faithfully reporting Brecht’s political ideas or creating a production that relied on his technique of alienation.”

When he had trouble understanding some element of the character or dramatic situation, he discussed it with Najjar until he was confident he knew why the character was singing his or her particular line. “When I was confident about the character,” he recalls, “the music flowed rapidly.”

To complement Kushner’s “darkly hilarious” translation, Daly’s score “does not usually stew in the heavy tragedy of the moment. It rattles along aggressively, cynically, and with a certain moxie. However, the music, which is frequently upbeat, showy, and fun, does stand apart from the action in one sense: it counterbalances the violence and tragedy that marks much of the play.”

Kattrin (Madeline Williams) and The Chaplain (Deshaun Valentino-Vegas) stand over Mother Courage (Penta Swanson) and her dead son Swiss Cheese (Julian Steinberg) in UO’s ‘Mother Courage.’ Photo: Charlianne Elsdon.

At Najjar’s urging, Daly refused to listen to earlier Mother Courage scores by Switzerland’s Paul Burkhard for the 1941 premiere to Jeanine Tesori (2006), and Spring Awakening’s Duncan Sheik (2016) or others, in order to create fresh music that responded to Brecht and Kushner’s lyrics and Najjar’s directorial interpretation of the play. Nevertheless, “a colleague who heard one of the numbers performed remarked that it sounded a bit like Kurt Weill,” Daly says. “I believe it, but that homage wasn’t intentional. I think Brecht’s text drew a mincing, showy style out of me.”

This production will include a pianist, cellist, and clarinetist who “in true Brechtian fashion will be visible onstage left throughout the performance,” Najjar says. Though some pre-recorded music will be sparingly used to bolster what is being sung on stage, “theatre is the ultimate live event so live music should be the default whenever possible.”

The production includes theatrical designs by Theatre Arts professors Jeanette de Jong, Jerry Hooker, Janet Rose, and Bradley Branam, and choreography by UO School and Music Instructor Lindsey Salfran. It stars Penta Swanson, a former Living Theatre and Alchemical Theatre alumnus who lives and works in Eugene as a singer/songwriter/performer with the band Rock n’ Rewind, and who has recently performed with Fool’s Haven Theatre Company, Very Little Theater, and Bard on the Butte.

The University Theatre production of Mother Courage and Her Children runs March 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17 at 7:30 p.m. and March 11 at 2:00 p.m at the Robinson Theatre. Tickets ($8-$10 and free for all UO students) online or call UO Ticket Office at 541.346.4363. 

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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