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Popular consumption of music has long been influenced by the stage – but perhaps not more so than in the modern era of super-popular Broadway musicals. It is in some ways easy to dismiss such musicals as somewhat venal entertainment, more akin to Hollywood than Mozart, but their immense popularity demands that they receive some attention. Perhaps no musical has been as widely popular as Jonathan Larson’s magnum opus, Rent, and perhaps no song is more indicative of both that musical and the feelings that it inspires in its viewer than “La Vie Bohème,” an homage to Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème, on which Rent was based. Songs in popular musicals often struggle with the blending of text and music; the text is often so important that music takes a back seat, or else an emotional moment of music is required, and text is written just to have something happening during that moment. I would argue, however, that “La Vie Bohème” effortlessly combines both musical and textual elements to create a pleasing cocophony that relates intrinsically to the philosophical underpinnings of a Bohemian lifestyle. In short, it represents the certainty of death, the chaos of life, and Bohemianism as a response to simply having too little time on earth. Life and death are the central themes to this work, both textually and musically. The song begins with a character explaining that he had had “a death in the family,” his dog, “Evita” had died. He then goes on to explain how beautifully the neighborhood would change if people would give up their bohemian lifestyle. During this period the music is light, delicate, ordered and lively, with a high, major key melody played on a piano. He closes by telling the other characters that “Bohemia is dead.” This moment represents the first change between life and death that occurs in the work. The music then launches into a funeral dirge, with the character of Mark launching into a funeral sermon regarding the death of Bohemia. While he speaks, an interesting musical and textual event happens during the background. Two basses begin singing what sounds like a traditional funerary chant in Latin, which sounds almost like a Gregorian chant. A closer analysis of this chant will come later, but for the moment it serves to especially emphasize the deathly nature of the beginning of this song. As the sermon goes on, however, its mood shifts, the organ music finishes playing a minor key dirge, and opens into a major key melody. As this transition occurs, Mark almost seamlessly stops talking about death, and begins talking about birth, the birth of Christ. This transition wholly encapsulates one of the fundmanental aspects of Bohemian behavior – the recognition of death. Bohemians live with constant awareness of death – it is an awareness that spurs them on to live as fast and hard as they possibly can, to extract every ounce possible of experience out of life before it ends. The song then launches into a chaotic manifesto in defense of Bohemianism. While the opening clearly pushes one Bohemian theme, awareness of death as a cause for living in a Bohemian way, it also pushes another theme: conscious rejection of authority. The chant, which appeared to be Latin at first glance, helps develops these themes more fully. On a close inspection, only the first line, “Dies irae! Dies illa” or “Days of wrath and doom are coming” are Latin. Traditional words of death. The pair of basses then launch into a new language, Greek, keeping the same Gregorian style, “Kyrie, eleison” or, “Lord of have mercy” before closing in a final different language, but the same Gregorian style “Yitgadal v’yitkadash,” Hebrew meaning magnificent and sanctified. Firstly, using three languages demonstrates an awareness and expression of value of diversity – a theme that is more fully developed later in the song. But more importantly, the song thus smoothly connects Latin, Greek and Hebrew liturgy into a neat package, and
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