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California Literary Review

The Emotional Significance of Modulation in The Secret Garden

The Emotional Significance of Modulation in The Secret Garden

aka What Happens When You Give a Theatre Kid a B.A. in Music

One day I dream of writing a full, in-depth analysis of The Secret Garden (either the original book or the musical adaptation) – because this is what six months of quarantine has done to my dreams – but, until I develop the discipline to focus my sanguine self into the concentration needed to carry that out properly, an analysis of one single song will suffice. This novel (and its adaptations) have helped me through many troubles in my life, including my daily struggles with anxiety and depression; a huge part of my love from this story comes from how it has helped me learn more about myself and helped me learn of better ways to cope with these problems. I know I am not alone in saying that quarantine has made things much harder for me, but fortunately, I started my time in lockdown with my annual reread of The Secret Garden on the first day of spring, which was part of my inspiration for writing this. Perhaps I may inspire you to take a look (or a listen) to this story, and perhaps, too, you may find peace in it as I have.

So, what analysis was I drawn to? My favorite character (oddly) is not very prominent in the book, but is explored more deeply in the musical. This 1991 musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, featuring music by Lucy Simon and a libretto (script and lyrics) by Marsha Norman, features a duet entitled “How Could I Ever Know” which falls toward the end of the show. Specifically, I desired to look at how modulations (changes from one musical key to another) serve to exemplify the three main emotions of this song: regret, frustration, and finally hope. Though I do not know for certain what Ms. Simon’s exact intentions were when writing this song (over 30 years ago), part of the beauty of art is the audience’s interpretations, and this is mine.

For this analysis, a brief overview of the story is in order:

Serialized from 1910-1911, The Secret Garden tells the story of a 10 year old girl, Mary Lennox, who is the daughter of a British soldier and his materialistic wife. She is raised in Colonial India by her Ayah (a native nursemaid), as her parents are too distracted by their high society life to care for her. At the start of the story, she is orphaned when a cholera epidemic takes the lives of her Ayah, then her parents and everyone she knows. Although she has no direct relations still living, she is sent to live with her late aunt’s husband, Archibald Craven, who lives in a big old house on the Yorkshire moors. Mary is intrigued upon her arrival to learn of a walled garden which belonged to her deceased aunt. When Mrs. Craven died in childbirth 10 years earlier, Mr. Craven locked the garden and buried the key. Mary resolves to find her way into the garden, and, in snooping around the house, she eventually discovers her cousin Colin, bed-ridden and hidden away, in the grand manor as well. Together, with some help, Mary and Colin bring the garden back to life, effectively restoring its “magic” – which throughout the novel has been tied to Mrs. Craven’s spirit. This connection and resurrection is heightened by a scene in which Mr. Craven dreams he hears his dead wife calling him to return home to their son and niece.

The musical serves to expand on the lives of the few adults in the story, putting a particular focus on Mr. Craven’s relationship with his wife, and how this relationship has led to his unfortunate inability to move on from her death. While the ensemble of the show is made up of the ghosts of the people Mary knew in India (a greek-chorus, referred to collectively as the “Dreamers”), there is another ghost near the forefront of the story: Lily Craven. In one of the most famous songs from the show, Lily sings with her husband Archibald, coaxing him to return home – as in his dream in the novel.

The song, “How Could I Ever Know,” comes after Archibald receives a letter from his niece asking him to return home. Though different stagings imply different concise emotions, it is clear by the lyrics in the song leading up to the aforementioned one that Archibald feels despondent. Suddenly a chord is heard and Lily enters the scene, commencing “How Could I Ever Know,” in the key of D-flat major. The emotion tied to this first section is regret – the regret Lily feels for her own death. Serving as an unseen guardian to her niece and son throughout the story, her lyrics here reflect her worry that she has abandoned her family. However, this also extends to Archibald if you interpret this scene as a dream (which I do, as in the book.) Archibald regrets having put his feelings for his wife before those for his son, whom he now realizes he (Archibald) has been mistreating. He is examining how he regrets not being a father to his child, a life created with the love of his love (which becomes a crucial turning point later in the song) by equating this emotional abandonment to the physical abandonment of his wife’s death.

Archibald has a solo before “How Could I Ever Know,” which ends when Lily appears to him. The abruptness of Lily’s entrance, effectively cutting off Archibald’s train of thought from this previous song, is emphasized by the chord the new song begins on, a iii7 chord. Lily’s opening verse is underscored by decorated iii7 and V6 chords (which themselves are played on a harp, to not only establish her ethereal presence, but also to highlight the general omnipresence she maintains in Archibald’s life, as she has in the book. By not beginning the song on a conventional chord (I or V, not that an opening third is particularly uncommon) Simon is telling the audience that Lily has always been there somewhere, but we (the audience) and/or Archibald can not always see her. This connects to the general theme of the song, summarized by Lily’s line “sure as you breathe, I am there inside you,” that we do not have to forget those we have lost in order to move on with our lives.

A critical aspect of this first section, musically, is that it does not cadence, or resolve, just as neither Archibald’s nor Lily’s regret vanishes; rather, it is pushed aside for the sake of the next emotion: frustration. This idea of not letting negative thoughts overcrowd one’s mind is a central element of the original novel. In chapter 27, the narrator includes the quote:

“where you tend a rose, my lad,
A thistle cannot grow”

to emphasize the concept of two things not being able to exist in the same location. In this analogy, the rose (a flower) is a good thought, while the thistle (a weed) is a bad thought. Unlike the typical “just be happy” phrases those of us with mental illnesses are so used to hearing, this quote recognizes that doing such is not so simple. While weeds are not wanted where you are trying to grow a flower, they are not inherently bad, and may even be seen as beautiful when they aren’t disrupting the growth of something else. Thus, this section of the novel elucidates the main idea of the story that, while negative thoughts alone are not bad, they become so when they prevent us from fostering the positive ones. Simon’s choice to not include a resolution in Lily’s section of the song “How Could I Ever Know” relates to this idea by expressing that we can grow with negativity inside of us, so long as we do not expend all our energy focussing on this negativity.

Instead, the sentiments gradually ameliorate throughout the song to show Archibald’s journey to overcoming his grief and learning to foster the positive emotions inside himself. While frustration is typically seen as a negative emotion, it is presented in this song as a means of exemplifying this growth, while still maintaining the idea that negative thoughts do not have to entirely dissipate for us to grow. His opening line, “how can I hope to go on without you,” show that his frustration stems from the idea that he genuinely wants to move on with his life, but does not know how; this contrasts the opinion the audience may have formed during the show that Archibald has not moved on because he does not want too, rather than because he cannot do so. But I digress.

The method by which this first modulation occurs also ties into this turmoil that Archibald is facing. Lily’s solo section (in AABA form) approaches a IV7 chord on the last beat of the last measure of the D-flat major section; then resolves to an E-flat 7 chord, the tonic (base note) of the new key. This change is not only unexpected, but it thus commences the new key on a dissonant chord; Lily finishes her phrase on a D-flat (the tonic of the original key), while Archibald enters on a G, the mediant of the new key, reminiscent of Lily’s previous entrance on a mediant (F in the case of Db-major.) However, when put together, these notes (D-flat an dG) form an interval of an augmented fourth. This dissonance highlights the opposing nature of Archibald’s frustration: his past, which he is regretful of, and his future, which he is hopeful of.

In context of the musical as a whole, it is interesting to note that this middle section in E-flat major, which spans about 8 bars (roughly 30 seconds), is a summation of Archibald’s feelings throughout the majority of the show; whereas the previous section, which is about 40 bars (roughly 2 minutes 20 seconds) , is a representation of what he has been trying to suppress during that same time. In this short section, the audience begins to feel Archiblad’s remorse as he battles with the negativity he feels comfortable in, and the fear of having to face his son after 10 years of neglect, while still trying to accept the death of his wife. I especially appreciate the implication that what feels safe and comfortable is not necessarily the healthiest way of coping. Mr. Craven is not fleshed out very much in the original novel, so I commend the women who wrote the musical for fleshing out this character who has a canon mental illness like depression; even though such is not explicitly stated by Burnett in the source material, as mental illnesses were still newly being researched when she wrote the book.

The bridge of the song is where the mixed emotions Archibald is grappling with are brought fully to light, so they can be tamed in the final section of the song. Though still written in E-flat major, there are 11 bars between this section and the final modulation that do not follow a particular pattern, but contain a borrowed melody. This melody comes from a song from earlier in the show which catalogue the relationship between Archibald and Lily, from how they met, up until their wedding day. While this section brings back the memory of their origins as a couple, it also marks the metaphoric end of their relationship, as Archibald finally moves on and leaves her behind. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself.

During the bridge (and for the rest of the song) Archibald and Lily sing together, symbolizing Lily becoming a part of Archibald, rather than a separate entity he is trying to hold on to. (See: “sure as you breathe, I am there inside you,” again.) This section begins with Lily telling Archibald to return to the garden, before adding “care for the child of our love.” Not only does her comment serve as a reminder that Archibald’s holding on to her has caused him to be a neglectful father, it also reminds him that she is literally a part of their son. These feelings are exemplified in Simon’s score by the accidentals (notes not in the key signature) that she introduces. The key does not change, as Archibald is still frustrated by this new circumstance he must confront, but the change is even more evident to the audience with the inclusion of notes that do not “fit” with the key. However, they do serve a musical purpose as well: to set up the melody for the final modulation. The melody of this section begins with a I-iii chord progression, subsequently introducing a c-minor eleventh chord which both maintains the darker tone of Archibald’s turmoil and highlights the note D, which will become the tonic in the last section, which is in D-major. It should be noted that this eleventh is played rather than sung, further emphasizing the idea that the characters are unaware that they are approaching a happier end.

During the latter half of these 11 bars, the accidentals – A-flat becomes A, B-flat becomes B, G becomes G-flat (enharmonic of the F-sharp in the approaching key) – are introduced to prepare the song for its final modulation, proving that this section of symbolically preparing the characters for their final emotional shift. One point of interest I found in this section, however, is the moment when the melody temporarily reverts back to the use of A-flat in the voice part as Lily sings “come go with me.” I think this is done to support the fact that growth is never linear. The theme of growing, or “coming alive,” that we face regarding the titular garden itself is also something nonlinear. Flowers may break or die before they fully bloom, but it does not diminish the progress they made, nor does it mean they’ll never heal. The same applies to people: a few steps back of our journey to recovery does not mean that any of our progress is suddenly futile. When Lily invites Archibald to follow her, his trepidation is reflected in the reversion to the notes of the key of frustration because, even though he’s willing to move on, he is not suddenly better because he has ten years of such feelings which he is trying to overcome. This concept serves to prepare the audience for the final section’s tone which contrasts the sombre opening greatly. The ending is positive, but it is bittersweet: Archibald is finally able to accept blame and return home to heal his relationship with his son, but he does so at the cost of the physical presence of his wife, which has been his comfort, his coping mechanism if you will, for the past decade.

The final section of “How Could I Ever Know,” which is 12 bars long, conveys the emotion of hope, and it is written in the key of D-major. The tonic of this section falls in the middle of the ones from the previous two keys (D-flat and E-flat) which shows that Archibald, with the help of Lily’s intervention, has found a metaphorical “middle ground” or resolution to his inner turmoil. Simon also conveys this movement by having the vii chord at the end of the E-flat section resolve not to an Eb (as expected), but rather to the tonic chord of the new key (D) on the downbeat of the first measure in this section. The gradual building of the orchestra also supports the growing sense of hope which Archibald feels, culminating in his decision (at Lily’s instigation, but his decision nonetheless if this scene is interpreted as a dream) to go home. The final step in his journey is to formally let Lily go, which he does in the finale of the musical.

Breaking down the theoretical aspects of this song gave me a new perspective on it; it is a song I know well and is very dear to me, as I was supposed to perform it in my senior recital this past March. Although my thesis was canceled due to the pandemic, taking the opportunity to analyze this song in-depth has given me a new appreciation for it. I have always used music to some degree to express myself, which is why I wanted to analyze how the same is done on stage by composers. It is incredible how something as simple as a key change can have a major impact on the audience, and getting to experience that atmosphere with a whole auditorium is one of the pleasures of live theater. Unfortunately, I feel contemporary audiences are no longer as in tune with how music makes them feel; they want something “listenable” or “enjoyable,” not necessarily something that makes them think and feel something wholly, which is prevalent in the scores of many modern musicals. This is not to say that those shows cannot still be good in other ways, but this is why I admire Simon’s decision to use a more legit (i.e. classical) style in her composition; it is better for expressing the emotions of the original text, allowing we, the audience, to connect to the characters with a deeper sense of understanding, as Frances Hodgson Burnett did with her novel. Individual notes and chord progressions are important to a song, but the way they are presented, through both keys and lyrics, is what is at the heart of a musical theatre score, and what brings emotions from the score to the listener. Unfortunately there is a lack of live theatre in our present circumstance. Though I fully understand why live theatre is temporarily halted, I anxiously await the day I can experience those feelings again, be it from the stage or from the audience.

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Jillian Donnellan is a New York based aspiring actress and self-proclaimed bibliophile with a B.A. in Music from Manhattanville College. Growing up on Long Island, Jillian has performed in plays, musicals, cabarets, dance shows, and more since she was three years old. Jillian loves to look at the (usually gothic) stories she reads with a critical eye; and her experience as a costume designer shows through in her search for historical accuracy on stage.

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