Paul Mauffray : Prelude to "The Scarlet Letter" (1962) by Fredric Kroll
performed by the Brno Philharmonic and conductor Paul Mauffray.
Fredric Kroll composed the original version of the Prelude immediately after reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, “The Scarlet Letter,” as required reading in high school at about the time of his 15th birthday in February, 1960. The beginning, up to 0:54, and the conclusion, starting at 3:34, are virtually identical with the original version. What came in between was discarded two years later as diffuse and immature, and was replaced by music which is far more dense and intense.
D Minor, which is also the central tonality of the whole opera, is the main key of the Prelude. Its basic form is tripartite: ABA (“Exposition”); CD (“Middle Section”); A (“Recapitulation” and coda).
A is the motif of the Scarlet Letter itself. It is divided into two parts: a descending tritone (Eflat –A) which builds in excitement up to a cascade of descending scales. B (0:34-56) is the motif of the brook in Act 3: Kroll conceived this melody at the moment when he read for the first time the passage in the novel at which 7 year-old Pearl the most tragic character in the novel because she is never permitted to know who her father is until he reveals his true identity at the moment of his death – mirrors her sadness in a rivulet: “Oh, brook! Oh, foolish and tiresome little brook! Why art thou so sad? Pluck up a spirit, and do not be all the time a-sighing!” (Compare https://youtu.be/tXzZOKV4M7o, 25:06-25:28; https://youtu.be/aa70DbqfI_8 up to 0:42). At the moment when Kroll heard this melody in his mind, he knew he had to compose the opera – which in fact ends with this melody when Arthur Dimmesdale dies.
The Middle Section is based on material which did not yet exist at the time when the original version was composed. C anticipates the Finale of Act 1, Scene 1, during which the adulteress Hester Prynne, standing erect on the platform of the pillory, swears to the assembled Puritan populace that she will never reveal the identity of Pearl's father, who would otherwise fall victim to the death penalty inflicted upon adulterers (1:32-2:16). “I will not speak,” she sings, “and my child must seek a heavenly father – she shall never know an earthly one!” (starting at 1:56; compare https://youtu.be/TWwPSOZHyHE, 16.55-17:38). The contrasting D section (2:25-3:03) is based on the second part of Roger Chillingworth's aria in Act 1, Scene 2 (see https://youtu.be/aaaIbqcI8Nc, 3:14-3:58). 3:14 in the Prelude ushers in a variant of the “Scarlet Letter motif,” which then remains predominant.