Hello, fellow nerds!
I'm so excited to dive into the next song from Hunchback of Notre Dame: "Topsy Turvy."
Let's do it!
This song introduces a new style that didn't show up in any of the previous songs. For lack of a better term, I call it the "Broadway Chorus" style. Imagine a huge chorus on a Broadway stage, with the guys holding canes and the girls wearing feathers, with colored smoke and huge brass fanfares, etc, etc... and imagine the bawdy, boisterous, super-enthusiastic music that goes along with it. That's what I'm talking about.
"Topsy Turvy" is full of this style, from the melody's 5-#5-6 undulations to the accompaniment's boom-chucks and walking bass lines to the sudden key and tempo changes and all those juicy IV - iv chord progressions. Kevin Lynch made a fabulous YouTube video analyzing 10 different musical theater clichés and nearly EVERY SINGLE ONE shows up prominently in this song:
1. Chord progressions that move from IV to iv
2. Augmented 5th chords, particularly as part of a 5-#5-6 melodic line
3. Walking bass lines
4. Boom chuck accompaniments
5. Chug chords (this is the only cliché I don't hear in "Topsy Turvy")
6. Sudden key changes
7. Double time
8. Sus chords
9. Big pull back
10. Hits on 2 and 4 + a button
But wait, there's more!
It'd be easy to just say that "Topsy Turvy" is in this Broadway chorus style and be done with it. And it'd make sense: the bawdy, boisterous, hustle-bustle that always pops up in my mind when I hear this style perfectly fits the "topsy turvy" street fair depicted in this song.
Except, there are other styles mixed into the song as well.
For example, the song begins with a solemn fanfare, whose contour and gestures resemble those of the "Cathedral" motif that we've already examined in the earlier songs.
And then there's the "gypsy" music in the middle of the song, when Esmerelda dances. It uses the so-called "gypsy scale" (aka "Hungarian minor scale" - like a regular minor scale but with raised 4 and 7, creating augmented 2nds). It features virtuoso violin solos that roll the bow across all four strings. It constantly accelerates, from a slow dance to a whirling frenzy.
And of course, how can we miss – though it's easy to miss because it only shows up very briefly – the theme from "Out There," which we hear very briefly in an orchestral interlude while Quasimodo is being publicly humiliated. It's such a poignant moment that highlights the powerful storytelling role of leit motifs. Quasimodo sang "Out There" when he was locked up in the tower and dreaming of how incredible it would be to walk along the streets with everyone else. But now that he's actually out there in the streets, he's being tortured and humiliated.
Last but not least is the grotesque shouting of the crowd: "TOPSY TURVY!" These tone clusters – super dissonant bunches of notes sung at the same time – sound like a toddler randomly banging its fist on a piano. On one hand, the major dissonance shows how unruly the crowd is; on the other hand, the mechanical nature of their shouting (all together on quarter notes) shows their mob mentality.
Gene Structure of "Topsy Turvy"
Why did Alan Menken mix all these styles in this song?
It'd be so easy to just say, "he liked these styles, so why shouldn't he use them?"
And that'd be very lovely, but also very wrong. :-)
Take a look at the image below, which shows a visual structure of the song. You can see when each style is being used:
Notice how each style is being used in a very different way.
The fanfare is used to demarcate major breaks in the music. It appears first at the very beginning, and then again before the "gypsy" music is introduced. Make sense; this is how fanfares typically are used. (Imagine blaring trumpets introducing a guest to a queen and king....).
The "gypsy" music comes as a surprise exactly in the middle of the song, a dramatic/climactic turning point when the crowd starts to get more violent. In the Western music tradition, this kind of music is often used as a way of building emotional/sexual tension. It's meant to be exotic; so instead of writing the whole song in this style (which would normalize it and lessen its exoticness), it's just used briefly in the middle for a sudden burst of emotional/sexual tension.
The "Broadway chorus" style is always paired with the grotesque shouting; together, they serve as the main "meat" of the song, setting up a stylistic norm against which the other styles sharply contrast.
See, this is why studying music theory is so important.
If you're just casually listening to the music, simply as music, simply as something pleasant to listen to, you miss so much of the storytelling. Sure, it's still fun and enjoyable. But it's like listening to a speech in a language you don't understand - you might enjoy the rhythm and the melodic ups and downs, but if you don't understand a single word that's being said, then all you're getting is the most superficial of superficial understandings.
By the same token, if all you're listening to are chord progressions (you know, the only thing anybody ever really talks about...), you're also missing out on the storytelling.
But if you can discern different musical styles, and understand their connotations, and listen to how they're interacting with each other, and ask why, why, why -- then everything just springs to life with so much meaning that you may never have even dreamed could be expressed through musical sounds.
tl;dr - MUSIC IS MORE THAN JUST ENTERTAINMENT, AND MUSIC THEORY IS MORE THAN JUST CHORD PROGRESSIONS!
I hope you enjoyed this blog post - the sixth in a 12-part series about the Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack! The remaining parts will be posted weekly over the next few months.
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Samantha Zerin has a PhD in historical musicology from New York University, and has taught music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is also a composer and poet, and teaches private students. To learn more about Dr. Zerin and her work, you can visit her main website, www.CreativeShuli.com