By Chris Brown
This tone poem is based on John Steinbeck’s novella, The Pearl, a beautifully-written story set over a century ago in a Mexican-Indian village on the Baja Peninsula. Amongst other things, it explores the effect of colonialism on traditional native culture. It tells the story of Kino, a native pearl diver who lives a seemingly idyllic life with his wife Juana and baby son Coyotito.
The opening of the piece captures this lifestyle beside the ocean, with the descending and ascending lines mirroring Kino’s diving and resurfacing as he plies his trade. The idyllic lifestyle continues to be represented by the simple melody of the cornets at letter D, and the childish, light-hearted parody in the following 6/8 section.
One day, Kino discovers a large and very valuable pearl (letters B and C), a discovery which sets off the drama of the tale. He sees the pearl as his ticket to wealth and all that can bring, including a bright future for his little son. Juana is not so sure, and the rest of the plot derives from the tensions created as Kino seeks to achieve his dreams in the face of envy from his fellow natives and the determination of the colonial masters colluding to cheat him of the true value of the pearl.
Kino too is aware of potential danger. At letter E, the sense of evil and threat is first intimated in thematic material that will recur throughout the piece. His determination get the full value of the pearl from his cheating colonial masters is represented in the march theme at bar 109 and subsequently.
Kino rejects the rigged offers made by the pearl buyers, and as a result, the potential dangers turn to reality that night (bar 127) when Kino is attacked and beaten by mystery assailants. Juana, valuing their current lifestyle (G –H) and knowing that things can only get worse, tries to throw the pearl back into the sea. She is stopped by Kino, who is aware of the evil around him (H) but is still focused on the good that the pearl will bring (from 6 bars before I). But he is assaulted again, and this time, he kills one of the attackers (J).
As a result, the family have to leave the village for the perilous journey to the capital city to escape justice and sell the pearl. They are pursued by trackers (K onwards) but in spite of Kino killing his pursuers, Coyotito is shot and killed (bar 246).
Kino realises he cannot win, and so he and Juana return to the village in despair, the lament at letter O based on the happy theme of letter D. Angry at the heartbreak the pearl has brought, (P), Kino throws the pearl back into the sea where it sinks softly to the seabed.