Don’t Poison Your Unicorns

“Although the world may not suspect it, all remains intact within the Poet’s heart.”

— Gian Carlo Menotti, The Unicorn, The Gorgon and The Manticore

I joined the Astoria Choir at the beginning of last year, and it feels great to spend one or two nights a week making music with other singers from the neighborhood, away from my phone, computer and all life’s other distractions. I sang in choirs throughout high school and college, and didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started back up.

We’re about to perform a piece that I’ve really enjoyed working up, so I decided to nerd out about it a little. Even if you’re not into classical/choral music, the themes of this composition might strike you as surprisingly…relevant.

“The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore,” was composed by Gian Carlo Menotti in the 1950s. It alternates between instrumental interludes and a capella movements called “madrigals.” The madrigals tell this story:

Imagine a quaint medieval town nestled at the base of a hill, and a majestic castle on top of said hill (Menotti was Italian, but I went to Prague for the first time last year, so I picture their town/hill/castle):

Via Wikimedia Commons

The townspeople are outwardly well-mannered but they gossip and talk behind each other’s backs — especially about the man who lives up in the castle, because he’s a rich, antisocial oddball who doesn’t go to church or come to their parties.

One day, Castle Man shows up in town leading a unicorn on a leash. The townspeople are like “A unicorn? WTF? This guy is so weird!” — at first. But then the Countess, who’s kind of the queen bee in town, decides that she wants a unicorn, so she begs her husband the Count to buy one for her. She is very dramatic about this: “why was I ever born if I was must go through life without a unicorn?!” The Count gets her a unicorn.

The next time Castle Man comes to town, the unicorn is nowhere to be seen, and he’s parading around with another mythical beast: the gorgon. This is what a gorgon looks like, FYI:

Photo credit: Carole Raddato via Wikimedia Commons

The townspeople, many of whom followed the Countess’s example and are now proud unicorn owners, take a look at the gorgon and say “ugh! What a beast! What’d you do with that pretty unicorn?” Castle Man claims that he got tired of the unicorn…so he killed it.

“OMG! That’s horrible! Castle Man is a murderous lunatic!” cry the townspeople. After they recover from their shock at Castle Man’s barbaric crime, they sing a mournful song about how man is wicked and unappreciative of God’s gifts, and they all weep for the poor, dead unicorn.

Meanwhile, the novelty of the unicorn soon wears off for the Countess. She poisons hers, insisting to her husband that it must have eaten something deadly or somehow caught a fatal illness. The Count’s like “no biggie, we’ll just get you a new one!” But the Countess is over unicorns: now she wants a gorgon.

The Count is not enthusiastic about the idea of a gorgon in his house; he shoots her down, so Countess throws a fit: “You don’t love me anymore! I’m going to leave you! I’ll become a nun!” The Count ultimately relents and gets her her gorgon. Sure enough, the rest of the town’s unicorns are soon replaced by gorgons.

Next time we see Castle Man, he’s got a new beast: the manticore. Here’s a manticore:

Via Wikimedia Commons

This is not a gentle house pet. It’s moody, has spikes, and fights sphinxes. Oh and sometimes it kills people (it doesn’t mean to, it’s just misunderstood). “Where’s the gorgon?” ask the townspeople; the Castle Man says it died. “Of what?” ask the townspeople. “Of murder!” says the maniacal, homicidal Castle Man. The townspeople are aghast!

Guess what happens next.

The Countess’s gorgon gets “lost.” But since everybody and their mother has a gorgon now, she doesn’t want another one of those. She asks for a manticore. Count freaks out. They fight, again (outdated sexism of this narrative notwithstanding, the lyrics to the fights are pretty amusing). Exasperated, the Count gives in, again, and says she can have a manticore. And then, Castle Man stops coming to town.

The townsfolk assume that the man in the castle is up to his old tricks and has offed the manticore, just like he did the poor unicorn and gorgon. This is the last straw for the townspeople: they take up their torches and pitchforks to storm the castle and put a stop to the carnage (remember the “kill the beast!” scene in the Disney cartoon of Beauty and the Beast? This is basically that, but with way gruesomer lyrics).

But inside the castle gates, a surprise: Castle Man is on his deathbed, surrounded by all three of his mythical beasts. “You fools,” scolds Castle Man. “I would never murder my dear cherished pets! YOU’RE the monsters, not me. You shallow hypocrites who would destroy something unique and special and rare, just for the sake of fashion! For shame!” And then, he dies. The End!

So, Signor Menotti was onto some things that still ring pretty true today: namely, that most people are sheep. He’s making fun of the whole concept of “keeping up with the Joneses” and the materialistic vice of wanting something just because you don’t have it.

But I think there’s a more sinister undercurrent that he’s warning us about. Sheep-y people can be easily persuaded to embrace something (a product, an idea, a political candidate…) frivolous, absurd or even dangerous, if they believe that doing so will make them feel special or like they belong. Why would anyone want a gorgon or a manticore in her house? It’s like in Mean Girls when Janis Ian cuts the boobs out of Regina’s tank top, and in the next scene the whole school is walking around with holes in their shirts. They all look stupid, but if stupid is the trend, they’re not about to be left out.

Menotti also shows us how this mob mentality can drive people to behave in atrocious ways that they would normally condemn. When Castle Man tells the townspeople that he has killed the unicorn, they’re horrified. But before long, they’re turning around and murdering their own unicorns (keep in mind that World War II and Hitler were not so far in the rearview mirror when Menotti was composing this piece).

Moral of the story:

Don’t poison your unicorns — i.e., don’t discard something special just because it’s out of style. Don’t be a sheep. Think for yourself. (Also: classical music is great.)

If you would like to hear “The Unicorn, The Gorgon, and The Manticore,” you can find it on YouTube and Spotify. This version on YouTube is great — the group gets really into the piece! (The only drawback is that it doesn’t include the instrumental interludes, which are lovely.)

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