Be Melodramatic! Using the Romantic Melodram in Studio and Class Teaching

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In the 19th century, most of the famous and not so famous composers wrote melodramas--pieces for narrator and piano or narrator and various instrumental combinations--or used or as a device in large scale works, as in Beethoven's opera Fidelio or Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. (There is no fixed word for this art form which at various times and by various composers is called a "declamation," "declaimed ballad," "monodrama," "duodrama" or "melologo," among other terms. We use the German language term melodram and the English melodrama.)

In the 18th century, Mozart was so enchanted hearing Georg Benda's and the English Melodrama full length stage duodramas (duodrama because two people are involved, Medea and Ariadne auf Naxos), he wrote to his father saying "Nothing has impressed me so ... I love these two works so that I carry them with me...." (1) Mozart's enthusiasm for the melodram reflects the inherent artistic and expressive qualities in combining words and music. The melodram gives performers an opportunity of using the speaking voice and expressing the poetry in a theatrical manner, while remaining sensitive to the phrasing, rhythm and balance. For the musical accompaniment, the melodrama is a study in character, timing and sound.

The marvelous melodramas of the 19th century, which were composed for the most part, for intimate parlor performance, are excellent additions to studio recitals and concerts. In addition, these melodramas ate useful in lessons, as a tool for helping students develop their imaginations and ensemble skills and find expression and colors in a unique musical setting.

Following are examples of some of the best 19th-century German language melodram, several of which can be performed by piano students at the late-intermediate and early-advanced levels. The texts ate from German language authors such as Goethe, Uhland, and Lenau, and the English writers Shelley and Tennyson.

Abschied von der Erde by Franz Schubert

This charming piece, Farewell to Earth, makes a wonderful introduction to the melodrama and the art of combining narration and accompaniment. Schubert uses lines of Adolf von Pratobevera from his poem "Der Falke" (The Falcon) in which the narrator describes how he is leaving the pains of this life and going to a better existence. Schubert sets a peaceful mood with the theme in the piano introduction, using a major key and a triplet rhythm. The text is spoken simultaneously with the music. Schubert actually composed a full evening's melodram, Die Zauberharfe, the overture from which is well known today as the overture for Rosamunde.

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Die Fluchtlinge, Op. 122 by Robert Schumann

Schumann's melodram gives the speaker an opportunity to recite this dramatic poem of Percy Bysshe Shelley "The Fugitives" either in the original English or in the German translation. Schumann calls it a "declaimed ballad" and also writes that it was a piece like no other, (2) referring to the more intricate timing required between the pianist and the speaker. The story is of two lovers braving a huge storm on the sea to escape an arranged marriage by the "tyrant father." Schumann's music goes through various moods depicting the lightning and thunder, the waves and fear, the affection of the lovers and the fury and curses of the father. The speaker must modulate the voice in order to express the various moods and, if in German, has a rare chance to speak the language and also use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for pronunciation. Schumann's other melodramas, which are equally effective, are Schen Hedwig, (Beautiful Hedwig) Op. 106 and Ballade vom Heideknaben (Ballad of the Youth of the Moor) also from Op. 122.

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Der traurige Monch by Franz Liszt

The text for Liszt's Der traurige Monch (The Sad Monk) was written by Nicolaus Lenau, the well-known Austrian poet of Weltschmerz. …