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Musical Motifs in 'Death of a Salesman"

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a deceptively simple play. The simplicity of the play, even so, quickly dissolves into a respectful ambiguity by way of Miller’s ingenious stage directions, nonverbal expressions and, most importantly, his musical style. From the opening notes to their final reprise, the audience is enormously attracted by what Tennessee Williams named the “plastic theatre” (Williams 213). The use of musical expression complements the textual version of the play generating a more lucid production. This willingness that Miller has to open up his theatre to a lot more than merely a language-embedded overall performance permitted him to develop a lyric drama, a far more poetic theatre by way of the melodic themes. The musical motifs assume critical roles in the production, roles accentuating the conflicts that the Lomans articulate to the audience by means of language. They foreground, by way of metaphor, numerous of the play’s deeper ambiguities and discords.

Miller’s musical themes express the competing influences in Willy Loman’s mind. When established, the themes want only to be sounded to evoke certain time frames, feelings, and values. The very first sounds of the drama, the flute notes “small and fine,” represent the grass, trees and horizon. These are objects of Willy’s and Biff’s longing that are tellingly absent from the overshadowed home on which the curtain rises. This melody plays on as Willy makes his initial appearance, although, as Miller tells us, “he hears but is not aware of it” (1165). By means of this melodious music we are as a result offered our first sense of Willy’s estrangement not only from the nature itself but also from his personal deep nature that confuses happiness with success.

The flute music also holds important previous references for Willy. Ben informs Willy that their father made flutes and sold them during the family’s early wanderings (1185). As Ben enters into their father’s biography a new music is heard, introducing an extra musical theme as the father is characterized by “a high, rollicking tune” (1184). The tune is differentiated from the little and fine melody of the natural landscape (1165). This distinction is fitting, for the father is a salesman as properly as an explorer. The rollicking musical theme that is heard in reference to his name collides with the tender music that he is remembered for. This represents the conflicting values that he possessed and passed on to those around him, hence providing proof to Willy’s adverse correlation amongst happiness and accomplishment.

The father’s tune shares a familiar likeness to Ben’s “idyllic” (1182) music. This theme presents itself falsely, as it is linked in depressing and discouraging contexts. Ben’s theme is first sounded following Willy expresses his exhaustion from his pursuit to succeed (1182). Then it is perceived once more after Willy is fired in Act II. This time the music precedes Ben’s entrance. It is heard in the distance, then closer, just as Willy’s thoughts of suicide, after repressed, now come closer at the loss of his job. When Ben’s idyllic melody plays for the third and final time it is in “accents of dread” (1228), for Ben reinforces Willy’s wrongheaded thought of suicide to support finance and assistance Biff and the family members. This thought of promoting out relates to the abandonment that Willy’s father portrayed considering that Willy can not bear in mind a lot about him. The father’s and Ben’s themes contribute tremendously to Willy’s disillusionment about life. They are therefore in opposition to the modest and fine theme of nature that starts and ends the play. The whistling motif elaborates this vital conflict. Most folks envision whistling to be an outdoor activity that accompanies perform. A whistler in an office would be a distraction. Biff Loman is fond of whistling, therefore reinforcing his ties to nature rather than the business atmosphere. Pleased seeks to stifle Biff’s true voice:

Pleased: …Bob Harrison stated you had been tops, and then you go and do some damn fool point like whistling complete sounds in the elevator like a comedian.

Biff (against Content): So what? I like to whistle occasionally.

Satisfied: You do not raise a guy to a accountable job who whistles in elevators! (60)

Happy holds numerous of the equivalent values that his father does, as he believes that good results and acceptance are the roots to happiness. He attempts to clarify to Biff that to succeed, and hence achieve happiness, he must not forfeit his desires. This corresponds to Willy’s estrangement from nature to gain successfulness.

Later in Act two the whistling theme reverberates once more as Howard Wagner plays Willy a recording of himself whistling “Roll out the Barrel” just prior to Willy asks for an advance and a New York job (1198). Willy’s uneasiness with the recorder that plays the whistling reiterates the concept of Willy’s estrangement and a lot more importantly his blindness to the truth. Being that Howard is a very prosperous man and is the particular person whistling on the recorder, disproves Willy and Happy’s concept that whistling is disapproved by business authorities. In a sense, Howard is showing Willy that happiness does not lie in one’s success but rather with his connection with nature and finding himself.

Willy’s conflicting desires to work in sales and to do outside, independent work are difficult by an additional longing, that of sexual desire, which is expressed by way of the “raw, sensuous music” that accompanies The Woman’s appearances on stage (1179, 1215). It is this music of sexual wish that insinuates itself in Act two. It is also heard just ahead of Willy, reliving a past conversation, delivers this ironic warning to Biff, “Just wanna be cautious with those girls, Biff, that’s all. Don’t make any promises. No promises of any kind” (1174).

This raw theme of sexual wish contrasts with Linda Loman’s musical motif. She is characterized by a maternal hum of a soft lullaby. This comforting music becomes a “desperate but monotonous hum” at the end of Act I (1195). Linda’s monotonous drone, in turn, contrasts with the “gray and bright” music, the boys’ theme, which opens Act II. This theme is related with the “great times” (1195) that Willy remembers with his sons ahead of his adultery is found. Like the higher, rollicking theme of Willy’s father and like Ben’s idyllic melody, this gay and bright music is ultimately connected with the false dream of materialistic good results. The boys theme is initial heard when Willy tells Ben that he and the boys will get wealthy in Brooklyn (1185). It sounds again when Willy implores Ben, “How do we get back to all the great occasions?” (1218).In his final moments of life, Willy Loman is shown struggling with his furies, “sounds, faces, voices, appear to be swarming in upon him” (1229). Abruptly, however, the “faint and high” music enters, representing the false dreams of all the “low” males. This false tune ends Willy’s struggle with his competing voices. It drowns out the other voices, increasing in intensity “almost to an unbearable scream” as Willy rushes off in his vehicle. As the car rushes off, the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound. The clamorous music softens as it becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello representing death and the end of Willy Loman’s struggle for good results. The play ends in the form of the flute’s little and fine refrain. It persists in spite of the tragedy we have witnessed insinuating that nature and following one’s correct self is the foundation of happiness.

From web page to stage, Arthur Miller meticulously structures Death of a Salesman upon a cluster of regressive musical images, photos that correspond straight to Willy Loman’s fall. Without paying much focus the music in the play aid the audience knowledge the mood that every character adds. Upon further examination, the sounds contribute to the musical motifs that underlie and assistance the general theme that Miller is addressing. From the conflicting nature of the flute to the controversy of whistling, Miller magically addresses the disillusionment of the American dream by way of Willy Loman.

Barnet, Berman, Burto, and William E. Cain. “Death of a Salesman.” An Introduction to Literature. New York: 1997.Williams, Tennessee. “Production Notes of Plays, The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, vol. I. New York: New Directions, 1971.
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