I. that not-to-be-forgotten night
II. Kin-Jeh said of his sister
III. still broken
IV. One rose to find
V. The willow pipe
“The Broken Rope” describes a connection between two people that has been frayed by the same backdrop of wartime out of which it was especially tightly spun. This metaphorical rope is depicted musically as a string of chords and images from the first song, “I. that not-to-be-forgotten night”. These images, “the sky”, “the chair”, “the conversation”, “the drink,” are the unraveled strands of rope that the choir is desperately trying to piece back together over the course of the entire song cycle. Meanwhile, two soloists are providing more detail on what their connection, that rope, looked like once, and how it’s changed since.
Over the course of their journey these characters realize that, though the rope of their relationship can be “knotted again”, it will never be the same. That there is a deeply emotional difference between “repaired” and “never having broken”.
Unlike the traditional song cycle – a collection of loosely affiliated songs – this piece develops its themes throughout, in a style more typical of symphonic writing. It’s constructed around an unrealized vision of what “The Broken Rope” looked (sounded) like before it broke.
This imaginary unbroken rope takes the form of a series of four interwoven tonalities, not unlike a four-chord pop song: B minor, A Major, G Major, C Major—at first in B minor as i, VII, VI, flat-II. Throughout the cycle, we hear snippets (snippings?) of the rope as it was, depicted by these four chords succeeding each other in fluid, naturally unfolding harmony. Indeed, this chain of tonalities is also represented in the keys of the first four songs in the cycle, with the fifth and final one being a return to B, but major this time.
Each of these strands that comprises the rope (the aforementioned chords (cords?)) also correlates to a given image presented in the opening song, “I. that not-to-be-forgotten night”: “The sky”is tied to A Major, “the chair” to G major, and so on. The rope that used to connect our two protagonists, simply referred to as Her and Him, is made up of common images their love shared. The sky, the chair, the conversation, the drink… But that string of images (and their associated chords) has been broken, and the song cycle begins with a fragmentary attempt to reconstruct the rope.
As the chorus seeks to repair the rope, attempting to string the images and chords back together, the female protagonist “Her” sings the complete text of “that not-to-be-forgotten night”. By the end, she is joined by the male protagonist “Him”, and it is revealed that she has been singing for both of them the whole time. He finishes the movement with his own singing of the phrase “that not-to-be-forgotten night”.
The second song, “Kin-Jeh said of his sister”, provides more exposition for these two characters, explaining who they are and how their love has been forced to exist against their wartime circumstances. Musically, the snare drum beat of “the battles” softens into “her light tread” and eventually into the anxious shivers of the line “Quickly at the railway station”. Meanwhile in this whole new key the chords of the rope continue to try to build themselves back to their unbroken state. In A Major, these chords manifest as ii (B minor), I (A Major), flat-VII (G Major), and flat-III (C Major.)
“III. still broken” features the rope, and the two characters it used to connect, at its most frayed. Words once connected to chords, even in fragmentary form, are now slightly displaced from them. The four harmonies making up the rope itself slip away into chromatic variations. By the end of this song, and Part 1 of the cycle, “Her” and “Him” realize that, though they may be able to one day knot the cords back together, it will always have been broken, and it will never be the same.
Following an intermission, Part 2 of the cycle begins with “IV. One rose to find”. With this new understanding of their situation comes a more grounded, less tortured expression of their love, delivered by “Her” and the choir. Finally, the chords themselves transpose to meet the new key. What was B minor becomes C Major; what was A Major becomes G Major; what was G Major becomes F Major; and what was C Major becomes a sort of B-flat major.
In the finale, “V. The willow pipe”, the music builds to a depiction of the newly fashioned rope. New images interweave with the original ones on their designated chords, still transposing to their new key. At the end of this story, the rope is not unbroken—it never will be—but it is certainly “knotted again”.