Influences, symbolism, and subtext in Gian Carlo Menotti's The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore or the Three Sundays of a Poet

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Gian Carlo Menotti’s madrigal fable, The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore or The Three Sundays of a Poet, bears the influences of various art forms and musical compositions. The work incorporates elements of ancient Greek theatre in three specific ways, namely the use of a chorus to offer commentary on the dramatic action, the combination of movement (dance) with music, and the use of a heroic figure. The Unicorn also has strong roots in the music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, which are evident in the elaborate counterpoint as well as in the stylistic features of both the madrigal and madrigal comedy found in the work. Specifically, the work was inspired by Orazio Vecchi’s madrigal comedy, L’Amfiparnaso, with which it shares similarities in form, harmony, text painting, and the use of onomatopoeia. While L’Amfiparnaso utilizes stock characters of the commedia dell’arte, Menotti created his own characters for The Unicorn. However, certain parallels can be drawn between the personalities of Menotti’s original characters and the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte, indicating a possible influence on the creation of Menotti’s characters. Medieval bestiary and the associated mythology were also strong influences on Menotti, as evidenced by his selection of the mythical creatures the Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore as allegorical representations of youth, middle age, and old age. While scholars have read the libretto as contrasting the true artist (a trailblazer with original, authentic emotions) with those who simply copy the art they see (mimicking emotion instead of making their own judgments), a yet unexplored subtext includes Menotti’s personal struggles with homosexuality in the conservative and judgmental society of 1950s America. This theme emerges through the thematic overtones of the work as well as through his usage of words and objects often associated with homosexuality.

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